West weighs price of sparring with Iran. Despite risks, French back hard line on Iran

The resemblances are startling. Every night, the evening news starts with a picture of the blockaded Embassy in Tehran. Foreign policy analysts worry about France being drawn into a military confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf. And political analysts ask whether Prime Minister Jacques Chirac will suffer from the ``Carter effect,'' the political damage inflicted on former US President Jimmy Carter by the Iranian seizure of American hostages in 1979.

France now faces a similar standoff with Iran. Six days after France severed relations with Iran, the French Embassy in Tehran remains blockaded, and negotiations to release the 26 Frenchmen inside are at a stalemate.

Meanwhile, the stakes keep rising. In the wake of last week's Iranian assault on a French cargo ship, France has moved three warships armed with Exocet missiles to the Gulf to accompany French tankers.

Iran has threatened retaliation. Analysts suggest several possibilities. The French warships could be attacked. The six French hostages in Lebanon could be executed. The 500 French troops in the South Lebanon international peacekeeping force could come under attack - no one here has forgotten the car bombing by Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiites that killed 58 French soldiers in Beirut in 1983. Or Mideast-inspired terrorists could reappear in Paris, where bombings last fall killed 13 people.

But the Iranians do not hold the only cards. French police are blockading the Iranian Embassy in Paris ostensibly to prevent the escape of Wahid Gordji, an Iranian translator who is wanted for questioning in connection with the Paris bombings.

According to the French police, Mr. Gordji is a top-level secret service agent directing Iranian terrorist efforts in Europe.

Few doubt that the French now will hold Gordji and the Iranian diplomats inside the Embassy until the safety of their own diplomats in Tehran is assured. The French insist that Gordji, who does not hold a diplomatic passport, must testify.

This tough stance enjoys support across the political spectrum. The Socialist Party called the move ``grave but necessary.'' Right-wing coalition members voiced their support.

Public opinion also seems to embrace the hard-line tactics. There have been no calls in the press to appease the Iranians. On the contrary, a steady stream of critical questions are being asked about Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's former policy of attempting to ``normalize'' relations with Tehran.

When Chirac came to power last year, he tried to woo the Iranians with gestures, money, and allegedly, arms. His goal was to free French hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

The French cracked down on anti-Khomeini exiles in France and paid back $300 million of a $1 billion loan owed to Tehran. Although they deny it, allegations persist that they also acceded to the Iranian demand for French arms.

None of this was enough for the Iranians. They insisted that France end its support for Iraq in the nearly seven-year-old Gulf war. France is second only to the Soviet Union as an arms supplier to Iraq. But the French refused.

With the complete collapse of the normalization policy between the two nations, the diplomatic standoff between France and Iran looks likely to continue for a long time. Analysts say each side could continue to up the ante.

The French could hold back or perhaps even confiscate the remaining $700 million of the loan they owe the Iranians. They could expel the many pro-Khomeini exiles living in France. And they could urge both their Common Market partners and the United Nations to isolate Iran diplomatically.

The Iranians, in turn, could attack French forces, engage in terrorism, or, even more ominously, unleash a group of ``students'' to take over the Embassy in Tehran. At present, Revolutionary Guards only stand on guard outside the Embassy.

But Christian Bourguet, a French lawyer who has represented Iranian interests in Paris, has predicted that unless the crisis is soon resolved, a huge demonstration could take place outside the Embassy.

``One cannot exclude [the possibility] that the crowd will invade the Embassy,'' Bourguet warned, ``and that French diplomats will be taken hostage.''

If that were to happen, the present French showdown with Iran would not only resemble the tragic 1979 takeover of the American Embassy. It would become a repeat performance.

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