PARIS — A scandal that some publications are calling the "French Irangate" is brewing over the sale of munitions to Iran by a French arms manufacturer with the alleged complicity of high government officials.
What is known as the Luchaire affair involves the alleged clandestine delivery of 450,000 artillery shells to Iran between 1983 and 1986 under the Socialist government of Premier Laurent Fabius.
Reports over the weekend in two French newsmagazines implicate high-ranking officials in the office of former Defense Minister Charles Hernu and say that even President Francois Mitterrand knew about the sales, which contravened a government embargo on shipments to Iran.
One magazine also cited an official Defense Ministry report as saying the Socialist Party received a commission of 3% to 5% on the sales, the total value of which is estimated at $117 million.
An investigating magistrate in Paris is reportedly seeking to have the report declassified so charges can be brought against several people.
In addition, As Safir, a leftist newspaper in Beirut, reported Sunday that the Paris government under Fabius tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Iran for the release of French hostages in Lebanon in exchange for a $3-million ransom.
As Safir quoted unidentified diplomatic sources as saying France also agreed to provide Iran with 500,000 heavy artillery shells, "but the deal collapsed at the last minute."
Six Frenchmen are among 22 foreigners missing in Lebanon and believed held hostage by pro-Iranian Shia Muslim extremists.
'No Doubt' of Cover-up
The French press articles were based on a report by Jean-Francois Barba, comptroller general of the armies. According to the report, cited by the weekly Le Point, "There is no doubt that members of the office of the minister of defense covered up this illegal export (of artillery shells)."
Hernu, in a television interview, denied having been involved in illegal arms sales and said the articles were part of a smear campaign by the governing conservatives prior to next spring's presidential elections.
The affair, which takes its name from Luchaire, the arms company involved, broke in February, 1986, when a Cherbourg newspaper revealed that in 1985, two Bahamas-registered cargo ships loaded with more than 140,000 artillery shells sailed to Iran.
At the time, the French government denied any responsibility for the affair, and Hernu said France had delivered no arms to Iran.
Immediately after the conservatives came to power in March, 1986, the new defense minister, Andre Giraud, ordered an investigation into the sales. The result was Barba's report.
According to L'Express, Daniel Dewavrin, president of Luchaire, justified the sales by saying his company needed them to get out of a catastrophic financial situation.
The weekly Le Point said that the company had logged the shells as being sold to Ecuador, Portugal, Israel, Yugoslavia and Thailand but that they were all sold to Iran.
Luchaire also sold explosives to Iran, Le Point said. The same type of explosives was used in a series of bombings in Paris last year, it said.
The company has declined to comment on the allegations.
Le Point's article quoted the official report as saying that an adviser to Hernu, Jean-Francois Dubos, put together the illegal export plan with Dewavrin.
The money was paid, according to the magazines' version of the official report, through a complicated network of bribes, kickbacks, foreign banks, intermediaries and foreign subsidiaries of Luchaire.