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Fate of Iran's Jews: shadowy factor in Israel's role in US-Iran deals. Link between flight of Iranian Jews, Israeli policy hard to pin down

Whatever its role in the controversial arms deals between the United States and Iran, Israel has good enough reasons of its own for maintaining discreet contacts with the Islamic government in Tehran. Iran may be a country formally dedicated to the overthrow of the ``Zionist entity,'' but in the murky politics of the Middle East subtler considerations can reconcile the bitterest of foes. For Israel, the two main considerations analysts cite are: strategic interests and the plight of Iranian Jews.

Strategically, Israel shares much the same concerns as the United States, one of whose avowed aims in launching clandestine arms supplies to Iran was to influence the makeup of any post-Khomeini regime in Iran. Iran's location in the Persian Gulf, it's oil-producing capacity, it's sizable population and Army, give it considerable influence in the region. Like the US, Israel had excellent relations with Iran under the Shah.

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Currently, Israel stands to benefit from an Iranian return to a more moderate position. The strategic concern, some analysts say, is perhaps the main reason for what is now widely acknowledged to be a long-standing Israeli program to covertly ship arms and spare parts to Iran.

How much the other factor in Israel's relationship with Tehran - the fate of Iranian Jews - played a part in this policy is not nearly as clear.

Government officials, citing reasons of security, are tight-lipped on the issue. And Israelis who know Iran well deny categorically that there is any connection between the two.

What is widely known, however, is that while there has been a flow of arms and amunition from Israeli to Iranian ports in the last eight years, there has at the same time been an equally steady flow of Iranian Jews leaving for the West.

Figures available here show that of some 80,000 Jews living in Iran before the revolution, today about 25,000 remain. The rest have emigrated, mainly to already established communities in West Germany, the US, Britain, or France. Fewer than one-third have come to Israel, and of them about half have since left.

It is also becoming clear that the Jews who remain in Iran are having a considerably harder time of it now than they ever did before. The Israeli government is presumably not unaware of that fact, and it seems logical to suppose that - given Israel's ideological commitment to redeeming worldwide Jewry - their plight is having some influence on Israel's policies.

According to a report this week by the New York Times, a new exodus of Iranian Jews is underway as a result of the steadily deteriorating conditions in Iran. The report said that there are now between 70 and 80 Jews arriving each week at refugee centers in Vienna. How they got there is not explained but it seems clear that many either had to bribe their way out, or make a dangerous over-land trek.

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The refugees arriving in Vienna are reported to be bearing tales of growing persecution and official discrimination: more and more Jews are being made to leave their government jobs; Jewish property has been confiscated; and Jews have been repeatedly imprisoned for extortion. Islamic committees are said to have seized control of schools and tried to force young Jews to convert.

In addition, travel documents are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Whole families are not allowed to travel abroad together. Those who can get out are often required to leave substantial financial guarantees. According to the New York Times report, most of those who made it out did so without proper legal documentation.

Israeli observers of the Iranian scene say that while the import of the New York Times' article is largely true, it overstates the case in some particulars.

According to Menashe Amir, the head of Israel Radio's Persian-language section, there is no question that the situation of Iranian Jews has deteriorated in the last year or so. However, that is also the case with other minorities in Iran. The Bahais, members of a faith that is regarded as heretical by the Shiite Muslim regime in Tehran, are treated particularly brutally.

In an interview, Mr. Amir said there is no official policy of harassment of Jews in particular but a more general trend toward Islamicizing Iranian institutions - a trend that inevitably leads to the dismissal of Jews from their posts and their replacement by loyal Shiites.

He also cast doubt on an incident cited in the report in which 2,000 young Jews were apparently rounded up in Tehran and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where they were ``terrorized and denounced as Zionists.'' According to Amir, the number of Jews involved was no more than 200 and they were all promptly released after higher authorities intervened.

Like other Israelis, Amir rejected categorically any link between the fate of Iranian Jews and Israel's arms shipments to Iran. If Israel were indeed using arms as a lever on Iranian policy, he argued, how come the plight of Jews there has worsened and not improved?

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