Behind the Scenes: How 13 Jewish Prisoners in Iran were Freed


Behind the Scenes: Thirteen Jewish Prisoners in Iran – The Untold Story of a Negotiation That Worked: “As the Israeli government and its most ardent backers in the United States continue to ramp up their criticism of the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, they might do well to heed the lessons from the last time they were involved in arms-length diplomacy with their arch-enemies in Tehran. Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Jewish community and the United Nations played a key role in a series of secret negotiations to win the release of thirteen Jews imprisoned in Iran.

–In 1999, the story started almost predictably.
 Security agents arrested thirteen Jewish residents of the southeast Iranian city of Shiraz, including five merchants, a rabbi, two university professors, three teachers in private Hebrew schools, a kosher butcher and a 16-year-old boy, accusing them of spying for Israel. After an elaborate, partially televised show trial, 10 were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, while Israel organized a high-level pressure campaign globally to win their release. The prisoners were gradually freed in small groups, with the news kept under wraps until the barest of details were leaked in March 2003, a month after the last one left Iran for Israel. But the inside story, never told until now, appears to show that opposite sides can make a deal, no matter how limited the scope. In interviews, the two key players in the negotiations – U.S. Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein and Giandomenico Picco, then a UN diplomat – revealed a delicate diplomatic minuet in the shadows that finally coaxed Iran to release the prisoners.

A decade later, Picco and Hoenlein take away markedly different lessons for today’s diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. “The lesson you learn is that the only language Iran speaks is strength,” said Hoenlein. “The way you have to deal with them is from a position of strength; the pressure’s applied when you mobilize resources such as sanctions, and they respond to it. We had mobilized more than sixty countries. The case became too expensive, the price was too high. It’s the same lesson now – we need to show the Iranians they’ve got to make a choice. Continue their nuclear program, or increased sanctions.” Picco, for his part, notes that the reformist Khatami was doing essentially the same as current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is now doing with the nuclear negotiations: attempting to mend fences with the West while protecting Iran’s core interests. Despite the poisonous distrust on all sides, diplomacy worked. “The main lesson is, if you really are good at negotiating, and if the people you are dealing with have guts and leadership capacity but also look into the future and want to build a future, then you have a chance,” he said. “If you want peace, it can be done.” [NationalInterest]


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