Thursday, June 24, 2004

When France Struck Out in Tehran

One of the hallmarks of Gaullist foreign policy is the willingness to fill in the gaps left by the American strategic posture. France has often been eager to set up shop where US companies either fear to tread or are barred from operating: Burma, Iran, Iraq, Libya are a few examples. The IHT has run a story on Franco-Iranian relations that is to appear in to-morrow's New York Times. In it, Borzou Daragahi reports that
French companies have been increasing their presence here in the past few years. New Peugeots and Citroëns flood crowded highways and streets. French business people dine in the capital's restaurants and work on Gulf oil platforms. Air France resumed flights to Tehran this month after a seven-year hiatus. And the carmaker Renault is about to make the first large-scale, long-term direct investment in the country by a French company since the 1979 revolution that toppled the pro-American Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
This represents quite a change as, since the Iran Iraq war, France had, for long periods, been unwelcome in Iran because of its support for Saddam. But back then this did not prevent France from at least trying to establish relations.

One of my oldest friends in France was born in Iran and those among his family who could escape fled the Khuzestan province and came to Paris, after the revolution. (Those who could not escape were imprisoned or...) They told me last summer how upset they were with the overtures French authorities were then making in Tehran's direction only because the old ally Saddam was now gone.

However, such overtures have a much longer history. The book Notre allié Saddam contains an interesting account of them. During the negotiations that led to France's loan of 5 Super-Etendard fighters to Saddam in 1982, organized mobs in Tehran could be heard to shout "Death to France!" Things were not going well. As the delivery of the planes grew nearer, the Iranian foreign minister hauled French attaché to Tehran Jean Perrin on the carpet, summoning him to the ministry and saying:
Another contract. You used to say, "We're only fulfilling the contracts signed before 1981." That's no longer the case. We think this constitutes a hostile act. If you'd given us the same sort of matériel that you're supplying to Iraq, we would have won the war long ago.
Vice-president of the Iranian parliament Mehdi Karubi later told a group of French businessmen, "You are now at war with us."

From the moment he was elected prime minister in 1986, Chirac tried to pursue the normalization of relations with Iran that had been begun by Mitterrand and Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. In addition to the economic and strategic benefits of relations with Iran, in a region where France did not have great influence, there was also the possibility of obtaining the release of French hostages captured in 1985 by groups close to Iran as well as the the end of a series of terrorist attacks (*) then occurring in France that some attributed to Iran, though they were claimed by a group known as the Committee on solidarity with the Arab political prisoners of the Middle East, ("Comité de solidarité avec les prisonniers politiques arabes du Proche-Orient," CSPPA).

On April 9, with the new government barely formed, Chirac sent a "good will" delegation to Tehran , consisting of Foreign Ministry Secretary General André Ross and North-Africa and Middle-East chief of staff Marc Bonnefous. Yet on April 16, he authorized a billion franc weapons contract with Iraq, against the counsel of his advisors. In May, however, he began secret negotiations with Iran, sending emissaries hand-picked by Charles Pasqua. The same month, he told the diplomatic press corps: "France can consider itself the friend and ally of Iraq."

For the new PM, things had gotten off to a flying start!

When Ross and Bonnefous returned from Iran, they provided the following précis of the views of parliamentary president Hashemi-Rafsanjani:
We do not understand France's attitude. Yet Ayatollah Khomeini harbors fond memories of your country! Why have you wasted this capital of sympathy? You are wrong in this war and we cannot accept that the United Nations and France have never recognized Iraq's responsibility in launching it. You are banking on a country that will soon cause you the greatest woes.
As for the matter of French hostages captured in 1985, "it's got nothing to do with us," Rafsanjani told them.

Two men had similar meetings with other Iranian officials. At one point, Ross was picked up in a car that circled Tehran several times before pulling over outside a building that was still under construction. Inside, Ross met Mohsen Rafighdoust, head of the Revolutionary Gard (Pasdaran), a small, nervous man. Rafighdoust asked Ross for the release of Anis Naccache (a Lebanese terrorist planner, involved in the kidnapping of Opec functionaries and held in France for the attempted assassination of former Iranian prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar) as a token of good will but made no formal promise to facilitate the release of the French hostages.

Iran's final conditions for improving relations with France were (1) the settlement of the Eurodif matter (#), (2) the expulsion from France of anti-Mullah terror gang/cult leader Massud Rajavi (%) and (3) the cessation of weapons sales to Iraq. On that point, Chirac would not budge. Therfore, no dice. Again

Indeed, support for Iraq operations required mollifying more than one interested party, Israel among them. In 1981, Foreign minister Claude Cheysson met with Israeli FM Yitzhak Shamir and tried to explain France's support for Iraq. Shamir replied, "Have you read the bible? Do you know who freed the Jews from Babylon? The Persians!"

It can have come as no surprise to Cheysson and Mitterrand to learn in 1983 that Israel had been selling arms to Iran for over a year...

(*) On 17 March, an explosion on a TGV wounded 11. Another bomb was defused on the same day at the RER station at Châtelet. Three days later, Chirac's inauguration was greeted by a bomb at the Point Show shopping center on the Champs Elysées that killed two and wounded 28 others. The attack was claimed by the CSPPA, who demanded the release of hostages then held in French prisons.

(#) Iran sought repayment of a $1 billion loan to France's Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique for Iran's participation in the multinational uranium enrichment facility known as Eurodif, while France wanted compensation for the enrichment services allotted to Iran.

(%) After Saddam's ouster, MEK leader Maryam Rajavi was finally arrested last summer, prompting followers to immolate themselves in the streets of Paris.

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