French confrontation with Iran: storm in a teacup?

More likely a storm in a teacup than a major confrontation. That is the assessment of knowledgeable observers of the current tense stand-off between Iran and France.

It was triggered by the arrival in Paris of ousted Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr late last month after months of hiding from the Islamic revolutionary regime in Tehran.

When the Mitterrand government granted Bani-Sadr conditional political asylum , the fundamentalists began to demonstrate outside the French Embassy in Tehran chanting "death to France," the French ambassador was recalled by Paris (then asked to leave by Tehran), and French nationals advised to return home were blocked at the airport.

But despite the official Iranian wrath against France, observers in Tehran contacted by telephone point to the fact that the fundamentalist stormtroopers, or Hesbollahi ("party of God"), took a wait-and-see attitude.

And while the authorities publicly condemned France in the strongest possible terms, privately they appeared concerned to keep the situation under their control.

"There is no comparison with what happened to the US presence in Iran," one observer told the Monitor.

"The United States was a clear-cut victim, the godfather of a hated regime overthrown by the Iranian people," he added. "Even the Iranian authorities realize that France can hardly be put in the same category. Bani-Sadr is not hated to the extent that the Shah was."

Said another observer well versed in Iranian affairs: "The situation is not nearly as serious as in November 1979. This will probably turn out to be a storm in a teacup."

Perhaps to try and calm the atmosphere, France went ahead with delivery of three French missile-equipped patrol boats to Iran, together with a congratulatory message by President Mitterrand to the newly elected Iranian President, former Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai.

This, however, did not offset fundamentalist anger at the French granting of political asylum to Bani-Sadr and leader of the left-wing Islamic Mujahideen-e-Khalq movement, Massoud Rajavi, who escaped with him. Tehran radio charged Aug. 6 that Mitterrand's government had now become more reactionary than the government of former President Giscard d'Estaing.

"France has now become a base for counterrevolutionaries and bankrupt politicians engaged in activities against the Islamic Republic of Iran," the radio said. And it went further, saying "the slogan 'Death to France' should become the slogan of all oppressed people. Our people have now come to know the ugly face of that country and have started to make revelations."

A senior official of the French Foreign Ministry -- in Tehran since Wednesday -- is now negotiating the departure of his fellow countrymen. The official arrived originally with a request for French Ambassador Guy Georgy to return to Paris for consultations. The official's mission was preempted by the announcement in Tehran that the ambassador had three days to pack his bags.

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