The release of two French hostages by a pro-Iranian group in Beirut appears to be a carefully-graded response to the recent improvement in France's relations with Iran. The step Friday has raised hopes that the remaining seven French hostages being held in Lebanon may be freed if French-Iranian relations continue to improve. But there is no sign that it will affect the fate of five Americans and other Western kidnap victims still missing.
A few hours later, on Saturday, two Cypriot students abducted by gunmen in Beirut in April were freed. The two events seemed, however, to be unrelated and the Cypriots' release did not appear to have any hopeful implications for the other Western hostages.
Iranian officials deny any linkage between their improving relations with Paris and the fate of the French hostages in Lebanon. ``Since Iran had no part in the kidnappings, of course we will play no role in solving the problem,'' Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Ali Besharati said during a visit to Beirut on June 10.
But the release Friday of journalists Philippe Rochot and Georges Hansen, the statement from their abductors, and France's public thanks to Tehran, all argue otherwise.
``They seem to be doing things by installments,'' one French observer says. ``I doubt if any more French hostages will be freed until another of Tehran's conditions are met.''
The suggestion is that if Iran's relations with France become fully normal, the release of other French hostages, including those held by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad (Holy War) group, may be forthcoming.
If Iran is believed to hold the key, Syria clearly played an important role in getting the liberated Frenchmen home once the door was opened. The two were taken in charge by the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Gen. Ghazi Kenaan, and handed over to French officials in Damascus by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa.
Giving full publicity to the handover ceremony, the Syrian state news media said the minister reaffirmed that Syria would continue its ``sincere efforts to help free the remaining hostages in Lebanon.''
In connection with the release of the two Cypriots, the Cyprus government acknowledged that personal intervention by the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, Yasser Arafat, played a role. Nicosia had earlier denied reports that their abductors were demanding the release of three PLO men jailed for killing three Israelis aboard a yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus, last September.
Recognition of Mr. Arafat's role clearly put the Cypriots' case in a different category from that of the two Frenchmen. They and their two colleagues from the Antenne 2 station were abducted by gunmen after trying to film a fundamentalist rally in the heavily Shiite Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut on March 8. Their captors, calling themselves the ``Revolutionary Justice Organization,'' issued several statements making clear their support for Iran and its Shiite Islamic revolution.
The latest statement, issued Friday morning, announced that the two would be freed as a result of ``improvements'' in France's policies toward Iran, and in response to mediation efforts by Syria, Algeria, and the Iranian-inspired Lebanese Hizbullah (Party of God).
The release came just two weeks after Iranian opposition leader Massoud Rajavi left from exile in France and moved to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, following a French police raid on his headquarters. A statement by his People's Mojahedin (warriors) said Mr. Rajavi's departure marked a new step in the fight against the Iranian regime. But its complaint about the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ``blackmailing'' other countries seemed be tacit acknowledgment that the move was partly due to Iranian pressure on France.
Following the release of the two journalists Friday, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac publicly thanked Iran, Syria, and Algeria for using their influence to help free the men. Mr. Chirac's government is widely seen as eager to normalize relations with Tehran, in the hope that Iran can use its influence to secure the release of all the French hostages. Four of them, including two diplomats, have been held for more than a year by Islamic Jihad, which also says it is holding four American hostages. (Last October, the group claimed it had killed a fifth American hostage but this has not been confirmed.)
According to mediators, the missing Americans are held by a particular cell of Islamic Jihad which has different demands for freeing them. These reportedly focus on the release of Islamic extremists jailed for bomb attacks on the United States Embassy in Kuwait in 1984. Iran would only be expected to intervene in the event of an improvement in its own relations with Washington.
Iranian officials indicated that Mr. Rajavi's departure for Baghdad on June 7 met one of Tehran's conditions for improving links with Paris -- a crackdown on the activities of French-based anti-Khomeini dissidents.
But two more conditions remain to be met: the return of a $1 billion loan made to Paris by the former Shah, and an end to French support for Iraq. Negotiations are reportedly under way on the return of the loan.
Iraqi deputy premier, Tareq Aziz, ended talks in Paris on June 10 amid public assurances from French leaders that any improvement in ties with Iran would not be at the expense of those with Iraq. France's supply to Iraq of advanced weapons such as the Super Etendard jet and Exocet missiles has given Iraq a crucial qualitative advantage with which to offset Iran's superior numbers. Although Mr. Aziz expressed satisfaction at French assurances, unconfirmed news reports have said that his Iranian counterpart, Ali Reza Moayeri, who visited Paris in May, won a secret commitment that France would not make any major new arms deals with Iraq.