The wall outside the Rabizdeh Synagogue, 15 feet of masonry and iron spikes, bears nothing to mark the place as a house of worship, but it does carry two slogans that reflect the situation facing Iran's 35,000 Jews. One offers protection to religious minorities; the other denounces the country's foreign enemies.
With 13 of their number awaiting trial in a local jail on charges of spying for Israel, members of Iran's Jewish community are understandably nervous about which hand Iran will play.
"We really don't know what is going on in their file," said Manucher Eliassi, a Tehran doctor and member of parliament elected to a seat allocated by law to Iran's Jews. "We hope we can keep the good name that we have always had. . . . This is not a good point for the Jewish community."
Israel and Iran were allies before the Shah was overthrown by an Islam-based revolution in 1979, and relations now are hostile. Espionage in either direction is not improbable. Iran has been an important source of moral and financial support for Lebanese Shiite guerrillas who have struggled against the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon. According to local news reports, the Iranian government has tried and executed a number of accused Israeli spies over the years.
But the arrest of the 13 Jews eight months ago, coming as conservatives and reformers in the Iranian government are jousting for control of basic institutions like the judiciary, has led many to question the motives. Foreign critics in particular have denounced the charges as fabricated, the latest in a series of efforts by hard-liners in the justice system to show that the nation is not secure under the reformist leadership of President Mohammed Khatemi.
Although the likely guilt of those arrested was pronounced quickly in conservative circles, Khatemi has pledged a fair trial and declared it is his job to protect minorities. The fact that several Muslims were also accused, he has said, shows the case is not rooted in religion.
Eliassi said he was given such assurances by the president personally, and noted that the harsh rhetoric initially surrounding the case has softened.
Diplomats, moreover, said a search appears to be on for a political solution that may free the accused while saving face for Iran. The case is being handled by the Revolutionary Court, a bastion of conservative power and the venue reserved for alleged crimes against the Islamic revolutionary movement.
Whatever the resolution, Jews here said they fear the case could disrupt a workable peace with the Islamic government and endanger a relationship that dates back 2,500 years, when the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great liberated Babylon and invited the Jews there to migrate east.
More than 80,000 strong before the Islamic revolution, the Jewish population has lost tens of thousands since then. Still, the Jewish community here remains one of the more substantial in the Islamic world--Jewish populations in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have largely disappeared--and locals say the numbers appear to have stabilized at their current 35,000.
"We are Iranian Jewish, not Jewish Iranian," said Eliassi, reflecting what he said is a basic loyalty Jews here feel toward a nation in which they are engaged economically, as doctors, engineers, merchants and laborers, and where they are able to practice their faith freely.
At the same time, the espionage case "doesn't have any logic," he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling at the notion that Israel would recruit more than a dozen spies from an outlying city like Shiraz, hundreds of miles from the capital, better known as the birthplace of mystic poets than a center of state secrets.
Many basics of the case have not been made public, including the exact charges, or when a trial might be held. The accused, three of whom are from Esfahan, to the north, include several teachers in Jewish religious schools and reportedly one teenager.
The mother of one of the accused, who did not want to provide her name, said she thinks chances are good that her son will be released. She has been allowed to visit him and provide kosher meals in jail, and she believes that the overall climate surrounding the case has improved.
"Today it's okay. Tomorrow, it may change," said the mother.
She said that she, like other relatives, is unsure about the origins of the case. Her son was a teacher in one of the community's religious schools, and she said the assumption is that the arrests were triggered by "some small thing" that perhaps created the perception of something larger.
Speculation abounds as to what that may have been. A telephone call or e-mail message, perhaps. It could even be travel to Israel, forbidden under Iranian law. The case could be rooted in a dispute within the Jewish community itself.
Other governments have toned down their initial criticism, apparently concluding that public pressure from the outside, particularly Europe and the United States, could make the politics inside Iran that much more difficult to untangle. Speaking to reporters earlier this month, U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat said there is "a great deal going on behind the scenes" to resolve the case, the Reuters news service reported.
Isaac Niknava, a leader of the Jewish community in Shiraz, said there is no feeling that this represents a general crackdown on his people. Local officials, he said, are working with Jews as closely as ever to coordinate events like a planned pilgrimage to the tomb of a local patriarch, several hundred miles away in Yazd, while family members of the accused are being given better access to their jailed relatives.
As he spoke against the backdrop of men chanting a Sabbath prayer, children cavorted around the synagogue's walled-in plaza, while youths crowded in to hear what was going on. The hall inside is not ornate--metal chairs and school desks, two large, fluorescent plastic signs with menorahs--although it is large enough to accommodate perhaps 300 worshipers.
The congregation's pride, he said, are its Torah scrolls, which are at least several hundred, if not a thousand, years old.
CAPTION: Manucher Eliassi, a Jewish member of Iran's parliament, says Iranian Jews feel a loyalty to their country.