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France, the Iran-Iraq war, and business …

Pierre Razoux is a historian, author of several books on the conflict in the Middle East and head of research at the NATO Defense College in Rome. The author expressed here personally.

It was thirty years ago, on 22 September 1980 the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war was revamping lasting geopolitical landscape in the Gulf region. This conflict, which lasted eight years and to about 800 000 deaths, would also have serious consequences for the safety of French and put their government in the greatest embarrassment. This is indeed found before a difficult choice: how to preserve the arms sales and industrial and oil cooperation with Iraq, without breaking with Iran? Because Paris did not intend to let go of Baghdad. Its economic and industrial interests there were too important. It all started in the early 1970s when the French oil industry had reached a very favorable agreement with the Iraqi authorities, after the nationalization of Iraqi oil by Saddam Hussein.

Rushing into the breach, the armament manufacturers had dropped the outlandish contracts to equip at great cost the Iraqi army. They were followed by industrial BTP, but especially those in the nuclear industry who had signed with Iraq in 1975, a contract for the manufacture of the Osirak nuclear plant.

On the eve of the war, more than sixty-five French companies operating in Iraq and ten thousand French technicians resided there. Iraq had become the largest trading partner of France in the Middle East and its second largest oil supplier. For some journalists, it would even become a source of funding for the RPR who was full of praise for the Iraqi regime. Paris and Baghdad were in fact so close that each had become hostage to the other.

The coming to power of a socialist government in May 1981, did not change the situation. The alliance with Baghdad met an important wing of the Socialist Party who saw in Iraq a model of modernism and secularism against the conservatism of the oil monarchies and obscurantism of the Iranian Islamic revolution. She was also seen as a way to protect energy supplies from France. In fact, Paris was never going to stop delivering weapons, ammunition and spare parts to Iraq throughout the period of the war. From 1972 to 1988, 90 combat aircraft, 150 helicopters, 560 armored vehicles, 81 self-propelled guns and more than 15,000 missiles of all types will be delivered and the army of Saddam Hussein, allowing French manufacturers to garner more twenty billion. Between 1983 and 1985, France was even “lend” to Iraq five Super Etendard equipped to fire Exocet missiles, which would contribute to asphyxiate the ayatollahs’ regime by harassing its oil. Cooperation with Iraq was, however, slow down in 1984, when it appeared that Iraq becomes insolvent when the international community accused Saddam of using poison gas, but especially when the French government acquired the certainty that he must balance vis-à-vis Tehran posture, after realizing the extent of Iran nuisance power. Because since the assassination of the ambassador Louis Delamare in Beirut in September 1981, Lebanon became a scene of confrontation between France and Iran. Several attacks on French interests on site were attributed to Shiite militias manipulated by Tehran. Despite having been welcomed to Neauphle-le-Château from October 1978 to February 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini demonized in France, calling him a “little Satan” and accusing him its commitment to Iraq.

At the end of the summer of 1984, the Socialist government began a direct negotiation with the Iranian regime to try to resolve the dispute then four between France and Iran: arms sales to Iraq, offered asylum Massoud Rajavi, the continued detention of Anis Naccache and litigation related to loan Eurodif. On the first record, France agreed to slow the pace of its arms shipments to Iraq and renounce any major new agreement with that country. On the second, it would expel Massoud Rajavi, leader of the People’s Mujahideen, seen as one of the main opponents of Ayatollah Khomeini, while he had obtained political asylum in France in 1981. The third folder, France would show greater firmness, at least initially, refusing to release Anis Naccache, the head of an Iranian commando captured on French soil in 1980 after trying unsuccessfully to assassinate Chapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the Shah fled to France. However, it would eventually release after the end of the Iran-Iraq war to end the thorny EURODIF folder. This was actually the heart of the French-Iranian dispute. In 1974, the Shah had granted a loan of one billion dollars to France for the construction of the uranium enrichment plant in Tricastin, in exchange for 10% of the shares of the company Eurodif and a write access to enriched uranium for the plant. This loan was related to the purchase by Iran of a French nuclear power plant. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah, he denounced nuclear cooperation with France, suspended the ongoing payments for the purchase of the plant and demanded repayment of the loan Eurodif. Echaudée by this sudden reversal, France had refused to repay the loan. Two years after the start of negotiations, Paris finally accepted the principle of the loan repayment EURODIF that would result in three installments in November 1986, December 1987 and December 1991. In all, France would pay between a billion and a billion and a half dollars Iran to settle this dispute. The dithering of successive governments was to accompany the kidnapping of thirteen French in Lebanon, and three waves of attacks in France that would make twenty dead and more than four hundred wounded and maimed. Instead, each progress in the negotiations would be accompanied by the release of some hostages.

This deleterious period should also be marked by two cases that would be emblematic of the fraudulent practices of certain industrial and intrusion of power in the sphere of justice.

The Luchaire case first. From 1982 to 1986, the French company Luchaire delivered to Iran 500,000 artillery shells, illegally, in violation of rules established by the government. An internal investigation by the Comptroller General of the Armed Barba, whose report was subsequently published in L’Express, showed that traffic had been covered by some councilors of Charles Hernu, then Minister of Defense. Several witnesses interviewed stated that the sales of ammunition had generated commissions that have fed the coffers of the Socialist Party. Legrand judge handling the case was never able either to raise the “secret” on some key parts or to prove the payment of sums to the Socialist Party. When it returned to power after cohabitation, the judge had no choice but to pronounce the dismissal.

The Gordji case then. In the spring of 1987, thanks to the testimony of a Tunisian Islamist repentant DST became convinced that Wahid Gordji, an interpreter at the Iranian embassy in Paris but actually representing the Iranian services in France, was the coordinator of the waves ‘bombings that bloodied the capital in 1986. Gordji having taken refuge in its embassy, the government decided to lay siege to it and issue an ultimatum to Tehran. Iran replied by closing the Embassy of France and attacking a French oil tanker in the Gulf. July 17, 1987, Paris broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran and launched the “Prometheus” operation (send the carrier group in the Gulf), triggering even there by the “war of Embassies” that lasted four months until an agreement is reached between the two capitals. Wahid Gordji agreed to be interviewed by the French courts, knowing that no charges would be brought against him and that he would be immediately deported to Iran. In cons-party, two French hostages would be freed in Lebanon. This case gave rise to a memorable exchange between Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand, between the two rounds of the 1988 presidential election Judge Gilles Boulouque, handling the case and accused of having yielded to the injunctions of the government, committed suicide two years later, in general indifference.

Ultimately, by its intransigence and its use of violence, Iran had managed to give France a number of important issues. Given the crisis between now Iran in the international community, but also of abduction threats to French nationals traveling in certain countries in the Middle East, these lessons of the past undoubtedly deserve to be meditated.