JUST ABOUT any new political twist in Iran is commonly taken as evidence of a subterranean struggle between moderates and fundamentalists for control of the country's Islamic revolution. In this pattern the arrest of 13 or more Iranian Jews on charges of conducting espionage for the United States and Israel suggests to some an effort to sabotage President Mohammad Khatemi's program for improving ties with the West. Whatever it is, it is alarming in its own right.

It seems that earlier this year two Iranian Jews living in Shiraz were arrested, possibly for refusing to close their shops on Friday rather than the Jewish sabbath of Saturday. Subsequently, Tehran radio reported that a number of Jews had been charged with spying. The ayatollah who runs Iran's judiciary said at weekly prayers that the accused will be tried according to the law. Espionage is punishable by death in Iran.

At first the case was handled quietly. But when the regime went public, so did the American and Israeli governments. They have "categorically denied" any intelligence connection to the suspects and called for their immediate release. The Iranian foreign ministry replied that protected official minorities such as the Jews, of whom about 25,000 remain in Iran, enjoy full civil and religious rights and that foreign appeals for the arrested group reflect "unawareness, prejudgment and interference in Iran's internal affairs."

In fact, foreign appeals reflect a fear that Iranians of one political stripe or another are hoking up a grotesque case against innocent people on the basis of their religion. The assumption of full responsibility for the rights of all Iran's religious minorities by President Khatemi, announced the other day in Tehran, should help him demonstrate this is not so.