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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK

World: Middle East

Khatami: Jews are safe in Iran

President Khatami: International standing at risk

By Iranian affairs reporter Sadeq Saba

President Khatami of Iran has made a strong defence of the rights of religious minorities after the arrest of 13 Iranian Jews on charges of spying for Israel.

Tehran radio quoted him as saying that he was responsible for the protection of all religious minorities who live in Iran.

This was the first comment by Mr Khatami since the Iranian judiciary warned last week that the arrested Jews could face the death penalty.

The case is at the centre of a growing international outcry which threatens to damage Mr Khatami's reformist image and the significant progress he has made in improving relations with the West.

Moderates in the Iranian leadership fear that if the Jews are convicted and executed on charges of spying for Israel, it is likely to have detrimental effect on Mr Khatami's international standing.

It has even been suggested that his conservative rivals, who control the Iranian judiciary and the intelligence service, could be using the case to sabotage his attempts to further improve relations with the West.

President Khatami has now reacted by saying that all religous minorities are free to practise their faith in the Islamic Republic.

He sought to reassure the Iranian Jews and the international community that religious minorities are safe in Iran and that he is personally responsible for their protection.

But despite Mr Khatami's reconcilation efforts, conservative newspapers have hailed the Iranian intelligence service for dismantling what they describe as a dangerous espionage network.

Islamic militants have also staged demonstrations in Tehran, calling for the execution of the alleged spies.

Pro-Khatami newspapers are only publishing official statements about the case and avoiding any comment.

It appears that the case of the 13 Jews is becoming a new focus for power struggle among moderates and conservatives in the Iranian leadership.

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