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France's Iran dilemma: juggling ties to Iran with antiterrorist policy

Like the United States, France faces a dilemma in dealing with Iran. French police suspect Iran directed the series of bomb attacks in Paris last September that killed 11 people and injured more than 150. French diplomats believe Tehran can help gain the release of French hostages held in Beirut. And they feel ties must be kept alive with the strategically important Persian Gulf country.

This dilemma focuses on one Iranian, a clean-cut young man named Wahid Gordji.

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Officially, Mr. Gordji is employed by the Iranian Embassy in Paris as a translator. Unofficially, he is considered the embassy's No. 2 official. He first came to Paris to complete his college studies, and remained here after the 1979 Iranian revolution, serving as a sort of special emissary for Tehran. According to published reports, he participated in negotiations to buy arms from France and to free the French hostages in Lebanon.

French police have evidence that Gordji was the financier and director of the terrorist network responsible for the Paris bombings.

In March, police arrested six Tunisians and two Frenchmen of Lebanese descent and accused them of placing the bombs. Gordji was a good friend of one of the accused, Muhammad Mudjaher. Before the arrest, police also wiretapped the accused bombers' telephones. One of them reportedly made an incriminating call to Gordji.

Although this evidence was not strong enough for an indictment, it convinced prosecutor Gilles Boullouque, a magistrate responsible for fighting terrorism, that Gordji must appear before him to testify. On June 3, he subpoenaed Gordji, who does not carry a diplomatic passport and must answer questions under the law.

But he did not appear. Police found Gordji's Paris apartment empty, and surrounded the Iranian Embassy in Paris, suspecting that Gordji was inside. They were right. The Iranian charg'e d'affaires called a press conference last Thursday evening. When the journalists arrived, they were surprised to find Wahid Gordji at his side, ready to interpret.

The charg'e, speaking through Gordji, said that a French diplomat named Didier Destremeau had warned them of the impending police warrant and told them to have Gordji escape by remaining in the Embassy.

Although the French Foreign Ministry immediately denied the charge, the divisions within France are apparent.

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The diplomats fear dangerous political fallout. They recall how Iran held US diplomats hostage, and how the British recently fell into tit-for-tat expulsions of Iranians. Since then, the British have reduced their presence in Tehran to a sole diplomat.

The police emphasize their fight against terrorism. According to Charles Villeneuve, the author of a respected book on terrorism in France, ``the police are convinced Gordji is a big fish.''

A divided French leadership aggravates these differences between police and diplomats. Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac say they are in agreement on how to handle the situation, but it remains unclear who makes the final decision.

In Tehran, French diplomats were confined to the embassy for five days. Over the weekend, the 28 persons inside the embassy were permitted to travel around the Iranian capital, but the embassy remains under high surveillance.

In Paris, French police continue to stake out the Iranian Embassy. French Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond said Sunday that Gordji must answer his summons before ``the measures taken around the embassy will be lifted.''

Whatever the outcome, the standoff underlines the failure of French efforts to ``normalize'' relations with Tehran. Those relations have long been strained, primarily because of French weapons sales to Iran's arch-enemy, Iraq. France represents Iraq's key Western arms supplier.

Over the last year, discreet negotiations have been carried out between the two countries to resolve economic disputes. Last October, the French agreed to pay back $330 million of a $1 billion loan made to Paris by the former Shah of Iran. In return, they hoped to recover some hostages. One hostage, Aurel Cornea, was released on December 24. But six others remain in captivity.

The French police soon arrested their terrorists and began following up the trail of evidence incriminating Gordji and Iran. Normalization was replaced with confrontation - and, as in the US, public skepticism is mounting.

``The Irangate syndrome,'' reads the respected daily Lib'eration's editorial headline.

Underneath, Marc Kravetz criticizes the French government's ``contradictory policy towards Iran'' and concludes, ``If tension rises, the French can only blame themselves.''

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