French Government Denies Secret Deal for Release of Teaching Assistant Held by Iran

The French government is denying that a decision by its courts to release an accused Iranian technology smuggler wanted by the U.S. was linked to Iran's release of a French teaching assistant who had been held by Iranian authorities on suspicion of spying. Another French court ruling, expected Tuesday, could free a man imprisoned for life by French authorities for murdering a former Iranian prime minister who had taken refuge in France after falling out with Iran's theocratic regime. But French authorities maintain that the timing of that ruling, which appears likely to result in the convicted killer's return to Iran, also is unrelated to Iran's decision to free the French academic.

Clotilde Reiss, a 24-year-old French student and teaching assistant, had been working and studying at a university in the Iranian city of Isfahan when she was arrested and charged with espionage by Iranian authorities in the wake of the protests following Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election. Reiss was detained in Iran for 10 months, though she was allowed to spend part of that time residing in the French Embassy in Tehran. She flew back to France on Sunday after an Iranian court commuted two five-year prison terms which had been imposed on her. She also reportedly paid a fine of $285,000, according to the Reuters news agency.

Her release followed a French court ruling May 5 that rejected a U.S. government request for the extradition from France to the U.S. of Majid Kakavand, an Iranian businessman accused of shipping, in violation of U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Iran, what American prosecutors claimed were high-tech goods to a company connected to the Iranian military. Kakavand, who had been imprisoned by French authorities following his arrest in March of last year, was later released on bail. In its May 5 ruling rejecting the U.S. extradition request, the Paris Court of Appeal ruled that the American-made equipment that the U.S. accused Kakavand of illegally exporting to Iran, which included electronic components (including pressure sensors, radial connectors, and inductors), were not presently subject to French export controls and therefore his extradition should not proceed. After the court ruling, Kakavand reportedly declared "I'm catching the first flight to Tehran," headed for the airport and caught a flight home.

The U.S. Justice Department criticized the French court action. Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said: "We believe our extradition request provided sufficient evidence to support Kakavand's extradition offense and are deeply disappointed that he will not be extradited to the United States. We provided to French authorities detailed analyses of Kakavand's conduct, of the applicable U.S. laws and provisions of the treaty that we felt supported his extradition to the United States." He added: "Although we're disappointed by the French court ruling, we will continue to seek justice in this matter. Efforts to apprehend Kakavand are ongoing and should he come into U.S. custody, he will stand trial for his alleged crimes."

At the time that the French court ruled against Kakavand's extradition, some U.S. officials privately voiced suspicion that the ruling might be linked to French attempts to persuade Iran to release Reiss, one of several Westerners picked up over the last year or two in Iran who American officials suspect Iran's government has been trying, in effect, to use as hostages to pressure the U.S. and other Western countries to release a number of Iranian businessmen and scientists whom the Tehran government claims have been illegally detained or abducted. Some U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that French prosecutors until the last few weeks had, in presentations to the courts, strongly supported U.S. government arguments for Kakavand's extradition.

But then, shortly before the court ruling rejecting the extradition case, said a U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the case, a new prosecutor appeared in court on the French Government's behalf and effectively pulled the rug out from under the extradition case. The official said that Washington was infuriated that the French government had apparently changed its position on the case without giving the U.S. advance notice.

U.S. officials offered no public comment Monday about Iran's decision to release Reiss or any possible connection between her release and the earlier court ruling releasing Kakavand. However, a spokesman for the French Justice Ministry denied that there was any connection between the court ruling or France's position in the Kakavand case and Reiss's release. The spokesman told Declassified that the court that issued the ruling rejecting the U.S. extradition request was independent of any influence on the part of the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who personally welcomed Reiss back to France shortly after she landed. France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, on Sunday told a French radio outlet: "There was no horse-trading."

The French Justice Ministry spokesman confirmed that Tuesday, a French court is also supposed to rule on whether to release Ali Vakili Rad, an alleged Iranian agent who had been serving a life sentence in French prison for the 1991 murder of Shapour Bakhtiar, an Iranian prime minister who moved to Paris after earning the enmity of Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters. The French Justice Ministry spokesman indicated that last year an official panel had recommended Rad's conditional release; a final ruling on this recommendation is supposed to be handed down Tuesday by a judicial panel on sentencing, the spokesman said. Although the spokesman said that the tribunals considering Rad's release were also independent of political influence, a report from the French news agency AFP said that in anticipation of a court decision to ratify Rad's release, France's Interior Minister on Monday signed a paper ordering his expulsion to Iran.