In the absence of a full official explanation for the release of Mohsen Sharif Espahani and Ahmad Taheri last Wednesday, a remark by Alain Lamassoure, the Minister for European Affairs, that the move was 'in the national interest', increased speculation that France was moving to head off another wave of terrorist bombings like the one that shook Paris in 1986, killing 13.
It has dealt a blow to the conservative government's reputation for uncompromising toughness in the face of Muslim agitation in France, personified by Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister. It recalls the atmosphere of compromise towards Middle Eastern terrorism in France until the 1980s, such as the expulsion of Abu Daoud, a man wanted in both West Germany and Israel for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes.
The two released last week were among 13 Iranians named by a Swiss judge investigating the April 1990 killing near Geneva of Kazem Radjavi, the brother of Massoud Radjavi, the head of the opposition People's Mujahedin.
Abolhasan Bani-Sadr, the first elected president of Islamic Iran, who fled to France in 1981 after being stripped of office, said he believed France had struck a deal with Iran to stop supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria.
The expulsions were confirmed on New Year's Eve by the office of Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, despite a French court's ruling that the two men should be extradited to Switzerland. Berne protested at Paris' handling of the affair.
Mr Lamassoure spoke in a radio interview on Sunday of 'threats which can influence decisions of this kind. I am sure the French understand these decisions.'
The expulsions came after a few months of rounding up suspected supporters of the outlawed Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in France and members of the Kurdish People's Party (PKK). In both cases, the authorities dropped heavy hints that one aim was to prevent Iran from setting up a new terrorist network in France.
In 1986, the bombings led to the breaking of relations between Paris and Tehran. Then, as now, Mr Pasqua was the Interior Minister.
Mr Bani-Sadr spoke to the daily Le Figaro of last week's 'contemptible' expulsion. He said: 'France has perhaps got the agreement of the Iranian regime to stop all military and financial aid to Algerian terrorism. If terrorism does stop in Algeria, then France can say it has carried off a great victory.'Reuse content