France may be rethinking jet sale

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As pressure has mounted on the French government, delivery of five Super Etendard fighter planes to Iraq has reportedly been delayed. French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson said last week that France ''would respect our contracts'' with Iraq. Western diplomats are convinced the planes still will eventually be sent to the Gulf. But a cloud of mystery hangs over the sale because Mr. Cheysson refused to say when the jets would be delivered, and because French officials, even in private, refuse to discuss the issue.

The French have always been reticent to talk about sensitive military sales. The total news blackout seems to indicate, however, that the government is increasingly unsure of what to do about the Super Etendards.

Pressure is mounting against the sale. American and British officials have privately expressed their concerns. So have traditional supporters of the government in the press such as the daily Le Monde.

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Most disturbing, Iran has stepped up threats to retaliate if the jets, equipped with Exocet missiles, are delivered to its Gulf war enemy. Ayatollah Khomeini last week issued a statement saying Iran would stop all oil exports from the Gulf if its shipments are attacked. Those threats were renewed Tuesday.

The jets were expected to be delivered last week when Iraqi pilots finished their training at a base in Landivisiau, Britanny. But at the end of the week, the pilots were reportedly still on the base, and the French press was saying that delivery of the jets had been delayed for a few days.

There has also been speculation in the press that the jets may now be delivered in parts. Assembling them would take several months, presumably reducing indefinitely the possibility of a dangerous escalation of the Gulf conflict.

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