Iran may be about to achieve a major diplomatic breakthrough by restoring normal ties with France and the Soviet Union, according to Western diplomats. Last week the French government unrolled the red carpet for the first high-level Iranian delegation to visit France in years. In a speech earlier this year, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac said his Cabinet wanted to open a dialogue with the Iranian government.
During a meeting with Mr. Chirac last week, Iranian Deputy Prime Minister Ali Reza Moayeri insisted that France:
Pay back a $1 billion loan made by Iran under the Shah's regime.
Extradite Iranian oppositionists living in France.
Stop supporting Iraq in its nearly six-year-old war against Iran.
After the talks both French and Iranian sources said the question of the loan was about to be settled. On Wednesday, CBS News reported that France has agreed to repay the $1 billion loan in return for the release of French hostages held in Lebanon by Muslim extremists. France will also pay a much lower sum directly to the captors. The report is unconfirmed.
France has asked Iran to help secure the release of the nine kidnapped Frenchmen. Mr. Moayeri repeated that his country condemns terrorism and is not involved in kidnappings in Lebanon. But he hinted that when French-Iranian ties were back to normal, his government would use its influence to try to secure the hostages' release.
While making it clear France would never extradite opposition leaders to Iran, Mr. Chirac accused Paris-based Iranian exiles of taking unfair advantage of their status as political refugees.
His comments have led to speculation that France, long a rallying point for Iranians opposed to the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, may restrict the political activities of Iranians within the nation.
The main source of disagreement between the two countries remains France's support for Iraq. Time and again, Chirac has said that although he would like to improve ties with Iran, he will not sacrifice France's relations with Iraq.
However, West European military attach'es in Tehran say French-made weapons have been reaching Iran in recent months, albeit in circuitous ways.
French officials deny having issued licences to export arms to Iran, but in March a French newspaper reported that several shipments of French-made shells had been sold to the Iranian Army.
According to reports in Arab papers in the region and Western military attach'es, Iran has also enhanced the firing power of its combat helicopters by equipping them with French-made AS-12 missiles.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government has been quietly boosting relations with the Soviet Union. In February, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Kornienko held talks in Tehran with top leaders.
Iranian officials say no deal was made on the issue of Afghan guerrilla movements across the Iranian-Afghan border, and Iranian editorialists continue to criticize the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
But Tehran-based Afghan guerrillas have recently complained about the limited military support they receive from the Iranians.
Iran has several times postponed trials of top leaders of Tudeh, Iran's banned pro-Soviet communist party. Observers speculate that, in return for this, Moscow has approved the sale of weapons to Iran by some of its allies.
Iran and the Soviet Union are engaged in negotiations to reopen the pipeline that links Iran's gasfields to southern Soviet republics. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran exported 28 million cubic meters of gas to the Soviets daily. In 1980, Iran halted deliveries after Moscow refused a price increase.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Iranian government has had stormy relations with the West, the Soviets, and most of its Arab neighbors. Iranian officials interviewed stressed that their country will always refuse to ally itself with either the Western bloc or the Eastern bloc.
Western observers in Tehran say Iran's uncompromising attitude is a two-edged sword.
At home it helps revolutionary leaders reinforce their grip on power. But abroad, Iranian diplomats discover how difficult it is to defend their country's interests in today's international community without the protection of at least one major power.
One European diplomat believes Iran's isolation has actually worsened since its military successes in the Faw peninsula in February.