Domestic Politicking May Free Iranian Jews

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They may have once been trashed as "Mad Mullahs" in the U.S. media, but Iran's hard-liners are wily political operators. And so when the conservative chief of Iran's Revolutionary Court, Gholamhossein Rahbarpour, said Tuesday that the "country's interests" should come first in deciding the fate of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel, the statement was widely interpreted as a signal that a deal may be in the works to save the 13, whose cause has been championed by Western governments, from the gallows. "The hard-liners' main concern is to head off the domestic challenge posed by moderate President Mohammed Khatami," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod. "But they also agree that it's in Iran's interests to improve relations with the West. Going easy on those accused of spying would be a way of avoiding confrontation with the West, and of making an accommodation with President Khatami."

Not that the conservatives are completely bowing to the widely popular Khatami and his reformist clerics. Following a two-track policy, they're also using their control over the legal system to harass Khatami's supporters. Earlier this week, Abdullah Nouri, a theologian and key Khatami aide, was convicted of a series of religious and political offenses by a hard-line-controlled court, in a warning shot across the bows of the reformists before next year's parliamentary elections. "The conservatives are primarily concerned with maintaining their grip on power," says MacLeod. "That may make them go after Khatami supporters in the courts, but for the same reason they may be willing to compromise on the spy case." After all, as the Iran-Contra scandal showed, the hard-liners will deal with the "devil" when it suits them.