France is determined to assert its independence over US policy in Iran in what appears to be a combination of economic self-interest and a different interpretation of events in the Islamic republic.
Although the European Economic Community is expected to decide whether it will impose sanctions against Iran at its April 27-28 summit in Luxembourg, the French government repeatedly has made it clear that breaking off diplomatic relations with Tehran will not solve the problem.
French President Valey Giscard d'Estaing, who believes that France should maintain a special position as a mediator between the West and the third world, is reluctant to be drawn into any form of economic warfare with Iran. "President Carter's methods are a terrible way of coping with the situation," a government source said. "Shutting all doors like that will get one nowhere."
Over the past few months, President Giscard d'Estaing's Iranian and Afghan policies have been plagued by inconsistency. Privately, there is much sympathy for the US predicament in Tehran, but officially, the government is unwilling to be tarnished by appearing to be in cahoots with the U.S.
Similarly, although France, after initial hesitation, firmly condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it feels that this should not also imply the abandonment of detente.
Arguing in the best of Gaullist tradition that France's sense os sovereignty will not damage Western solidarity, President Giscard d'Estaing is keen on reasserting that his country should remain faithful to the allies without losing its independence.
France, unlike West Germany and Britain, receives relatively little oil from Tehran, but most political parties here are against a disruption of economic relations with Iran. "Europe," maintains Socialist presidential aspirant Michael Rocard, "cannot afford to regard the Iranian situation with the same eyes as the United States. Our concern is more mercantile."
France, in particular, has high hopes of eventually selling its technology to Iran once the present political turmoil has subsided. It is also fearful of sullying its pro-Islamic credentials in the Middle East.
The main criticism leveled against President Carter cites the manner in which he has handled the Iranian affair. "He has simply appeared too indecisive too often," one government official noted. "The Americans should therefore not be surprised that we Europeans must act cautiously rather than fall into step regardless of consequences every time Washington beckons."
There is also a strong feeling among the French that they are in a better position to judge the Iranian situation than the Americans because of traditional cultural ties. Michel Jobert, former French foreign minister under the late President Georges Pompidou and before that a close adviser to General De Gaulle, recently observed that the US should have acted with "complete indifference" with regard to the hostages.
"This is what we have learned with Algeria," he said. "By showing too much interest in their affairs, we only provoked trouble. Only by holding back have we been able to live together. It is rather like a husband whose wife has run away. By constantly following her, he only provokes trouble. By acting indifferently, everything calms down and they might even become friends again."