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France and Iran: on-off ties seem on again. But French allies and analysts worry `thaw' could be Iranian trap

France once again is wooing Iran. And some success has been visible. Thanks to Iranian help, two French hostages held in Lebanon were released over the weekend. Afterward, the siege at the Iranian Embassy in Paris was lifted. French diplomats similarly besieged in Tehran were allowed to return home.

What exactly the French gave up in return for the hostages' release remains a mystery.

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France's allies, including the United States, fear France may have paid dearly. They also worry that improved French-Iranian ties may lead to a large reduction in France's large naval presence in the Gulf.

French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's major concern in working for the hostages' release seems domestic. In recent months, his political standing has plummeted. Mr. Chirac now suggests that the liberation of Jean-Louis Normandin and Roger Auque, could lead to the release of France's three remaining hostages, diplomats Marcel Fontaine, and Marcel Carton, and journalist Jean-Pierre Kaufmann, who have been held by the Islamic Jihad since 1985. (A fourth French hostage, Michel Seurat, is believed to have died in captivity.) Securing the release of all the hostages would be a major victory just in time for next spring's presidential elections.

Under the rules of France's unique political ``cohabitation,'' - between its Socialist President and Conservative premier - foreign affairs and defense matters are technically the domaine of the President. If Mr. Chirac were able to show that he had resolved the emotional hostage issue, he would both demonstrate his own presidential qualities, and underscore the powerlessness of Francois Mitterrand, who is still considered the likely winner in next spring's elections.

But Bassma Kodmane-Darwish, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs at the French Institute for International Relations, warns that the Iranians may have set a trap.

``There is always the danger,'' says Ms. Kodmane-Darwish, ``that the Iranians may have released these two hostages, just to boost the value of the three remaining French hostages as bargaining chips.''

France's allies worry about just such a trap. British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, warned that ``no concessions should be made under force to terrorists or those who shield them.''

As part of the package the French worked out, negotiations with Iran are expected to resume over a $1 billion loan the late Shah made to France. France repaid $330 million last year, but broke off talks after Mr. Auque kidnapped in January.

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To the Iranians, strapped for funds, the money is important. For the French, repayment would be easier now since the dollar has lost value in relation to the franc.

Other Iranian demands may prove harder to satisfy. The Iranians are demanding that France stop military aid to Iraq, or sell the same kind of equipment to Iran. Mr. Chirac has repeatedly refused to abandon Iraq.

French intelligence officials worry that a collapse of the Iraqi regime would leave the entire Mideast open to a wave of Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalism. Deserting Iraq would also hurt France's credibility with its Arab allies.

What does seem possible is a reduction in the French naval force now operating in the Gulf. Pressure already has been building in French defense circles to recall the country's only aircraft carrier, the Clemenceau, from the Gulf of Oman.

A French pullout in the Gulf would increase the likelihood of other Europeans pulling back, and fit Iran's efforts to isolate the US from Europe.

The possibility of French arms being sold to Iran has also been raised. A British newspaper, the Independent, quoted English sources in the arms business as saying that France was already shipping replacement parts via Portugal to Iran for its missile-patrol boats which carry French-made Excocets. In addition, the Independent said France was sending Iran French-made radar parts. In the French view, such sales would not necessarily be illegal. France could say it simply is fulfilling contract obligations that have already been established, an argument used a few years ago by President Mitterrand when he authorized delivery of missile boats to Iran.

But on Tuesday, France denied the reports that it sent military hardware to Iran or made a $330 million loan repayment as part of a deal to free the hostages. The Foreign Ministry said, however, that France soon may make a second payment on the $1 billion loan.

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