France has quietly become a major gathering place for the opponents of the battered Khomeini regime in Iran. And with speculation growing here that the Ayatollah's Islamic revolutionary government may fall apart at the seams sooner than expected, France appears to be excellently placed to enjoy a privileged status with at least some of the groups that would like to take over.
Ousted Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar has long operated an extensive and well-financed anti-Khomeini organization from Paris -- while enjoying the same kind of heavy police protection once extended to Ayatollah Khomeini during his own exile here.
The most recent arrival, deposed President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, is installed in a pleasant riverside villa at Auvers-Sur-Oise, near Paris, and is also heavily guarded by French police.
Mr. Bani-Sadr is frequently accompanied by Massoud Rajavi, leader of the leftist Mujahideen-Khalq, who escaped on the same hijacked Iranian Air Force plane with him on July 29.
In addition, despite repeated extradition demands, the French are making it clear that Iranian dissidents who briefly hijacked an Iranian gunboat on Aug. 13 are welcome to stay in France as long as they want. The hijackers have already said they plan to carry out similar operations in the future.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in the lexicon of Iran's beseiged revolutionary Islamic government France may soon catch up with the United States as one of the designated enemies of the revolution.
Recent Tehran Radio broadcasts have been accusing French President Francois Mitterrand of dishonoring France by giving refuge to "airplane thieves" and "pirates." One Iranian commentator angrily charged that in contrast to Mr. Mitterrand, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing showed "moderation in his opposition to Iran."
Some of the worst moments for France came when French citizens were prevented from leaving Iran last month. After a week of harrowing negotiations and delays , 107 of the estimated 144-member of French community in Iran left Tehran on two flights. A skeleton four-member embassy staff, headed by First Secretary Jean-Pierre Ginhut, remained behind with about 30 French citizens, some of whom stayed because they were married to Iranians who could not get exit visas.
During the crisis Mr. Bani-Sadr was barred from talking to reporters. But within 48 hours after the last group arrived in Paris on Aug. 12, police quietly let it be known that Mr. Bani-Sadr was free to talk to the press again. Nearly 200 journalists have since made the trek to Auvers-Sur-Oise.
One of Mr. Sadr's first pronouncements was a declaration that the Khomeini regime would collapse overnight if five men --Bahonar, Assembly Speaker Rafsanjani, Chief Justice Ardebeli, and Interior Minister Mahdavi-Kani -- were assassinated. The statement sounded as much like a suggestion as a declaration of fact, and the personalities named were clearly not pleased. And on Aug. 30 two of those named by Bani-Sadr, Muhammad Ali Rajai and Javad Bahonar were killed in a bomb blast in the prime ministry.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's behavior is only the latest development in a long history of somewhat erratic diplomatic relations between France and Iran. A few years ago, France enthusiastically supported the Shah and planned to equip Iran with nuclear reactors, a modern subway system, and a number of ambitious industrial projects as well as a whole range of modern armaments.
When it became clear not only that the projects under discussion were not getting off the ground, but also that the Shah was not likely to stay in power, the French did an about-face and granted political asylum to Ayatollah Khomeini, who at the time was virtually unknown in most of the Western world.
Helping Khomeini appeared to be a masterful diplomatic coup as the inevitability of the Shah's downfall became apparent. But the advantage was lost when the French granted political asylum to Mr. Bakhtiar who fell from power amid the Khomeini takeover.
Even without Mr. Bakhtiar, Franco-Iranian relations were bound to turn sour because of the conflict between Iraq and Iran. Iraq provides France with 23 percent of its oil, or about 27 million tons a year. Besides being France's second-largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia, Iraq is also France's largest market in the Middle East.
France halted arms shipments to both Iraq and Iran at the beginning of the conflict. But last January the French quietly delivered four Mirage F-1 fighters to Iraq. The jets were part of an order for 36 planes made in 1977. The Iranians were enraged, especially since the delivery of three 160-foot gunboats ordered by the Shah in 1974 and 90 percent paid for had been held up as a result of the embargo that went into effect after the taking of American hostages.