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French Compromise With Iranians Leaves Europe Without Policy

December 03, 1987|DOMINIQUE MOISI | Dominique Moisi is associate director of the French Institute for International Relations and editor of Politique Etrangere

PARIS — is always difficult to comment on a play before its final act. The process of normalization between France and Iran, which saw dramatic developments over the weekend with the release of two French hostages and the end of the "embassies war," is sufficiently intricate to warrant prudence.

The latest events have been greeted in France with a mixture of satisfaction, puzzlement and concern for the sake of democratic principles and the sanctity of the judiciary's independence.

In this context one question transcends all others: If one accepts the principle of dealing with a state that so patently violates the rules of international law, does the compromise that has been reached correspond to the principle of balanced and mutual interest? Can one say that in the bazaar-like negotiation that is taking place, one party has benefited more than the other?

France's aims were to normalize its relations with Iran and to get its citizen-hostages back at an acceptable diplomatic, political, financial and moral cost. Iran's ambition was to show that it pays to negotiate with Tehran--that it can deliver and prove to be both rational and realistic. Iran was willing to moderate its stance to send this signal to the West and to halt the diplomatic isolation that has grown in the aftermath of last month's Arab summit meeting in Jordan. In some ways the agreement with France may also translate as both parties' acknowledging the futility of their diplomatic skirmishes, as well as a mutual fatigue.

For France, normalization with Iran has long been overdue. It was attempted with dynamism if not clarity by the previous Socialist government's foreign minister, Roland Dumas. When Premier Jacques Chirac took office, he, too, was convinced initially that to get the hostages back would constitute a plus, not least in the eyes of public opinion before an election year. But the high cost, given mounting Iranian demands, and the slow path of such a difficult balancing exercise--France wanted to normalize with Iran while continuing to send weapons to Iraq--proved to be a formidable barrier to accomplishing the task.

The revelations of the Iran arms scandal in Washington, the popular support here for the unexpectedly tough life sentence given to terrorist Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, the growing awareness by the French authorities that public opinion was in favor of a policy of firmness--all these contributed to de facto abandonment of the attempt to normalize with Iran. That was followed by a worsening of relations and an escalation of provocations. Last summer diplomatic relations broke down spectacularly, with Iran's embassy in Paris cordoned off and under 24-hour watch, and Paris' envoy in Tehran put under house arrest.

The initiative for the breakthrough seems to have come from the Iranian side. This can be construed either as a sign that French firmness paid off or that the Iranians saw a bargain in the release of their man in Paris, who was suspected of terrorist activities, for the minor price of two French journalists. The full assessment awaits the liberation of the other three French hostages, believed to be held in Lebanon.

In France, bureaucratic infighting has played an important role in the affair. As reaction against terrorism and concern for the hostages became dominant in the Chirac government's Middle East policy, the Interior Ministry (in charge of law enforcement agencies) came to play a leading role. Under the activist leadership of Minister Charles Pasqua, it largely obscured the role of the Foreign Ministry, more discreetly represented by Jean-Bernard Raimond, and that of the president of France himself.

Beyond what appears, so far, to be a successful improvisation more than a well-controlled master plan, one can regret the lack of a common European approach to the hostage question. The British government, under the firm leadership of Margaret Thatcher, has chosen a policyof non-compromise, with the result that British hostages remain prisoners. France has adopted a policy combining firmness and compromise, and is gradually succeeding in getting ts hostages back. The result is there, but at what political and moral price?

One day if Europe wants to be taken seriously in the world, it will have to harmonize its sensitivities and principles on such a symbolic question. In the Middle East, despite the vessels patrolling in the Persian Gulf, Europe does not yet exist.

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