Jerusalem (CNS) Iran's arrest of 13 Jews charged with spying officially condemned by the United States and Israel may complicate Washington's attempts to engage Iran, spurred by the election two years ago of "moderate" President Mohammed Khatami.
Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk has warned that Tehran's continued "very negative" view of Israel would militate against a "constructive relationship" between Iran and the US
Both the US and Israel had been aware of the arrests for two months they occurred around Passover, in early April but held back on commenting publicly while behind-the-scenes attempts were being made for their release.
An Iranian radio announcement this week that the 13 would be charged with spying for the US and Israel prompted Washington and Jerusalem to break their silence Tuesday.
First to do so was Indyk, who told a House International Relations Committee hearing that the administration found it "hard to reconcile President Khatami's words with the announcement yesterday that 13 members of the Jewish communities of Shiraz and Esfahan, including rabbis, would be charged with espionage."
State Department spokesman James Foley said later the arrests "send a very disturbing signal. We call on the government of Iran to ensure no harm comes to these individuals and to release them."
"Now that it's in the public domain, we believe it's appropriate to speak out on the matter," he said.
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said the charges were "entirely without foundation," while Bruce Riedel, presidential advisor for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, told a press briefing that there was "no basis to the [espionage] charge."
Hours after an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson told CNS the government would not be commenting on the highly-sensitive issue, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon announced that those detained had not been involved in spying, nor had links now or in the past to "any Israeli intelligence agency."
Sharon, who is in the US on a private visit, said Israel believed the 13 had been arrested only because they were Jewish, and called for their immediate release.
He met UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in New York on Tuesday to discuss the matter.
Prime minister-elect Ehud Barak also expressed concern, saying he supported the position of the outgoing Netanyahu government.
Espionage is a hanging offense in Iran. Iranian experts told CNS the charges may relate, among other things, to alleged attempts to encourage Jews to immigrate to Israel.
Jewish groups and Congressmen have been involved in attempts to secure the detainees' release.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, confirmed in an Israel Radio interview Wednesday that these efforts had been underway.
"Many of us have worked behind the scenes," Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) told Tuesday's House committee hearing. "But you can't work behind the scenes anymore when the Iranian government has now charged these individuals rabbis with spying."
Sherman asked Indyk what the State Department was doing, or planning to do, to secure the detainees' release or ensure their safety.
"As you know, we do not have a direct dialogue or ability to engage the Iranian government directly in this regard," Indyk replied. "But we will certainly be active in ensuring that those that do have the ability to engage with the Iranian government make this an issue."
He conceded that the U.S. had enjoyed limited success in persuading its European allies not to do business with Iran.
"We've succeeded in some cases in preventing international financial institutions from lending to Iran. We've succeeded in holding up any kind of foreign assistance to Iran. But when it comes to commercial dealings, including foreign credits by these countries, we've had less success."
The US has imposed sanctions because of Tehran's weapons of mass destruction program, its sponsoring of terror groups, and human rights abuses.
Earlier in the hearing, Indyk told the committee that, despite Khatami's remarks denouncing terrorism, "Iranian support for terrorism remains in place."
Although the administration has taken pains to differentiate between Iran's "reformers" and old-guard "extremists," Indyk had critical words for Khatami, who held talks last month with Syrian-based Palestinian terror groups opposed to the Mideast peace process.
He said the Palestinian rejectionists were "yesterday's men who speak only the language of violence and terrorism and rejection. Why President Khatami would want to associate himself with these people is, I have to say, beyond me."
Although Khatami represented the move towards democratization, Indyk said, "when it comes to national security policy, it seems that there's a kind of collective decision-making that goes on. And [Khatami] operates within the context of this collective decision-making."
Overall, he said, "I think that the Iranians continue to view Israel in very negative terms, and I think that that is very unfortunate, because as long as they continue to do so, it is a major obstacle to their playing a constructive role in the region and to their having a constructive relationship with the United States."
White House spokesman Foley, asked about the affect on US-Iranian relations of the Jews' arrest, said Washington was interested "in pursuing a different and better relationship with the government of Iran after 20 years of no relations," but that areas of concern remained.