Did France Make a Deal with Iran to Exchange Prisoners?

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Michel Euler / AP

Ali Vakili Rad, who was convicted of killing former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, leaves the Poissy prison, outside Paris, on May 18, 2010

Was France's decision on Tuesday to release a convicted Iranian assassin part of a swap that secured Sunday's return of a French academic who'd been detained on spying charges in Tehran? That is what some observers in France suspect, after a French court ruled that the convicted killer of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar be freed so that Interior Ministry officials could execute his expulsion to Tehran — in accordance with an order they had signed less than 24 hours before. Iranian and French officials deny that any deal was made.

On Tuesday, a French appeals court ordered that Ali Vakili Rad be released from prison and deported to his native Iran 16 years after his 1994 conviction for murdering Bakhtiar — the last Prime Minister under the Shah of Iran, who had been living in exile in suburban Paris. That decision was made less than a day after French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux signed an order for Vakili Rad's expulsion to Tehran — a requirement for the court to be able to respect the prisoner's release request. Hortefeux's move, however, has raised suspicions in France because it came in the wake of Sunday's return of Clotilde Reiss, a 24-year-old French teacher who had been detained in Tehran since July 1 on spying charges related to protests sparked by Iran's contested 2009 presidential election. French officials have continually denounced the charges against Reiss as false, echoing President Nicolas Sarkozy's emphatic rejections each time Iran floated the suggestion that her liberty might be obtained through some sort of bargain. Given that French stance, Tuesday's order to free Vakili Rad just 48 hours after Reiss's return home led some critics to contend that France had agreed to a deal after all.

"To claim today that there was no exchange is to take people for idiots," said Socialist Party spokesman Benoît Hamon on France-Info radio on Tuesday. "The French people are intelligent enough for [the government] to say, 'We wanted to bring Clotilde Reiss home because she's innocent, and made efforts asked of us for that.' "

Political opponents of France's ruling conservatives aren't the only ones who smell a swap. "What we take away from this adventure is that Iran has wonderfully manipulated and defied the democratic world, and France in particular," fretted the daily Midi Libre in a Monday editorial that — like virtually all French press coverage — anticipated Tuesday's ruling to free Vakili Rad as a certainty.

Interviewed on Radio J on May 16, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hotly denied suggestions that a prisoner exchange was in the offing and attributed the timing to coincidentally overlapping moves by each nation's legal system. "In France, we don't influence judges' decisions," he said. "It has nothing to do with any haggling, any alleged bargaining." Reiss's Iranian lawyer has been quoted in press reports as saying her return home was made possible by the recent Iranian court decision to commute her initial 10-year prison sentence to a $300,000 fine, which he said was paid last week.

Sorin Margulis, Vakili Rad's lawyer, noted that the Tuesday court order to free his client dated back to a July 2 decision to that end, meaning Vakili Rad "was in a position to be freed before" Reiss's trial in Tehran began in August 2008. Outside the courtroom, Margulis not only stressed that the judgment was "made outside all political negotiating," but even added that "the Reiss affair only delayed [Vakili Rad's] release."

Still, skeptics say there are enough suspicious historical precedents to keep doubt alive. Earlier in May, a French court ruled against an American extradition request for Iranian businessman Majid Kakavand. The U.S. suspects Kakavand of having used a Malaysian address to purchase electronic equipment that could be used in military applications, then shipping the equipment to Iran despite an embargo on such products. In explaining its decision, the French court said that Kakavand — who denies any wrongdoing — had violated none of France's laws in his transactions. Subsequent media reports quoted American officials as saying they felt the ruling was shaped by efforts in Paris to secure Reiss's liberty.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time France turned a deal and raised eyebrows in Washington, London and beyond. In the 1980s, France is known to have paid ransom and made other concessions to kidnappers in Lebanon holding French hostages. In 1987, Paris similarly freed an Iranian embassy interpreter suspected of having orchestrated a series of 1986 bombings in the capital in a move that French media reports contend was in exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon. Three years later, France pardoned and expelled to Tehran four people who had been convicted of a failed 1980 assassination attempt on Bakhtiar that killed two people — the belated meeting of a demand by those who conducted the 1986 Paris bombings.

Barring evidence to the contrary, the firm declarations by Iranian and French officials that no deal was done are difficult to challenge. That could change, however, when Sarkozy resumes his lead role in the international push against Iran's nuclear development project — and Iran looks for something painful to strike back with.