Who's Really On Trial?

Danny Tefileen's family gathered before the massive stones of Jerusalem's Western Wall last week to pray for his deliverance. He and 12 other Iranian Jews are standing trial in the ancient Persian city of Shiraz on charges that they spied for Israel.

Iranian authorities have held the alleged spies in jail for 14 months. Last week videotaped interviews with Tefileen and two others confessing to the charges were broadcast on Iranian television. In Israel, virtually no one believes they are guilty. According to friends and relatives, Tefileen and several of the other defendants merely taught Hebrew language and culture. The Israeli government has flatly denied the espionage allegations. The United States and Europe have put Iran on notice that they expect nothing less than a scrupulously fair trial. But the accused may yet be sentenced to death. At the Western Wall, Tefileen's two sisters shook with sobs as they listened to Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau address himself to the Iranian judges. "Please, let my people go," he said. "Let our brothers go."

The ultraconservative mullahs who control Iran's courts are not likely to be moved by a family's tears, nor the rhetoric of foreigners. But there are other reasons the courts may soften their stand--reasons that touch on the future of Iran itself. Reformers bent on democratizing the Islamic republic are opposed to conservatives who claim religious infallibility. In four elections since 1997, including one last week, the democrats have won landslides. They see the conservative judiciary as one of the last great obstacles in the push toward greater freedom. And with reason. The judges recently shut down 16 of Iran's popular reformist newspapers, and jailed some of Iran's best-known journalists. After the democrats won an absolute majority in the February elections, the Council of Guardians, a sort of religious supreme court, tried to reverse or dilute the results. But in runoffs for 66 seats held last Friday, the reformers won 44, and now claim an 80 percent majority in the 290-seat Parliament.

The conservatives are cornered. If the new Parliament is seated as planned on May 27, then the path toward democracy could be irreversible. Further ploys by the judiciary and the Council of Guardians are almost certain. For instance, they have yet to ratify the February vote in Tehran that gave liberals 29 of 30 seats. But the reformists know they must not allow themselves to be goaded. Student organizations are pushing for restraint rather than taking to the streets. Anyone calling for violence is suspected as a provocateur. "Everybody is trying to keep his cool," says one liberal bookstore owner in Tehran. "Everybody is trying not to blow their top."

The trial of the alleged spies in Shiraz is seen by many Iranians as just another of the judges' provocations. There have been many since President Mohammed Khatami was elected three years ago. Khatami's promise--and his strategy--was to replace the old revolutionary cult of blood and violence with a civil society ruled by well-defined laws. The conservatives played along. In 1997 they still controlled the Parliament that made the laws, the courts that interpreted them and the guns that enforced them. Behind the scenes, some conservatives also organized death squads. Key Khatami allies were impeached, put on trial and jailed. Intellectuals who supported him were murdered. Newspapers that backed him were harassed and shut down. But Iranians who put their faith in democracy, rather than fighting every little battle in the courts--or at the barricades--opted to win the big ones at the polls.

After the February results, the lame-duck Parliament, the judiciary and the Council of Guardians stepped up their efforts to stifle the press. Assassins shot and almost killed a leading strategist of the reform movement. But the conservatives' backing among the military and security forces has grown tenuous. Soldiers and members of the Revolutionary Guards talk openly about their support for reforms, and often say they would refuse to shoot at pro-testers. A former head of the Revolutionary Guards ran as a reformist candidate.

Even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has distanced himself from the judges. "He doesn't want to isolate himself from the population," says Iranian political-scientist Azadeh Kian-Thiebaut. His core backing comes from the conservatives, but his aides have said publicly he may no longer be able to control the most radical members of the judiciary. "Most importantly, the leader wants to remain the leader," says Kian-Thiebaut, "and he knows he cannot keep fighting the clear will of the people."

In this vast and complicated game, Tefileen and the other alleged spies in Shiraz are seen by many Iranians as pawns. Their defense lawyers say that even those who confessed did not have access to any information that was damaging to Iran. Tefileen, after all, earns his living as a shoe salesman. The relevant laws are unclear. The case appears weak, and many Iranians think the only reason it was brought was to embarrass Khatami. One of the president's goals, after all, has been to improve relations with the West. His opponents know that if he has to spend political capital defending accused Israeli spies, it will only weaken him at home.

But if Khatami's Parliament is seated this month, consolidating the democratic gains of the last three years, he will have more room to maneuver on every front. That may not guarantee an acquittal for all of the accused, but it will certainly help their chances on appeal. Through the rule of just laws, Khatami's aim remains to set all his people free.