France, despite its officially proclaimed policy of neutrality in the Iranian-Iraqi war, said today that it has delivered the first four of 60 F1 Mirage warplanes to Iraq.
French officials denied, despite appearances to the contrary, that delivery of the jet interceptors, the most advanced French fighter in production, was timed to follow the release of the U.S. hostages to avoid complicating the delicate negotiations took place.
The timing apparently is linked to contract deadlines that can no longer be avoided to politically embarrassing to President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who is in an increasingly tough reelection struggle.
["The Iranian people will never forget this act by the French government," the Iranian Embassy in Paris said, according to The Associated Press. "It is difficult for us to imagine that France, whose leaders never miss an occasion to affirm their respect for liberty and democracy as well as their friendship toward all people, would go so far as to deliver arms of such importance to an aggressive and cruel country such as Iraq."]
Delivery of the sophisticated warplanes to Iraq, in addition to angering Iran, could cost Giscard the support of many Jewish voters who see Iraq more as an enemy of Israel than of Iran. To preserve the appearance of neutrality in the war, France may send Iran a dozen high-speed patrol boats whose delivery has been held up.
Given the Reagan administration's refusal to deliver weapons to Iran that had been ordered before the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and Secretary of State Alexander Haig's postive-sounding statements about Iraq, the French delivery of the warplanes to Iraq is not expected to raise concern in Washington.
The four planes were spotted yesterday afternoon landing for fuel at Larnaca air base in Cyprus, with camouflage paint and no national insignia, and the French Foreign Ministery confirmed today that they were the first contingent bound for Iraq.
Iran's order for the 12 high-speed patrol boats was held up by Paris last spring because of the embargo applied against Iran because of the hostages' captivity.
French sources said financial difficulties could delay further the delivery of the ships, which would be particularly useful to Iran in the war. France lost $11 billion worth of civilian and military contracts in Iran after the overthrow of the shah.
Yet, French exports to Iran, mostly foodstuffs not covered by the embargo, increased by 80 percent last year, according to official statistics. French sources say that despite the Paris government's clear tilt toward Iraq, France may now feel forced to release the patrol boats rapidly to show its neutrality in the conflict. Five of the 12 are reported ready to go, and Iranian crews are understood to be in Cherbourg familiarizing themselves with the boats.
The French Foreign Ministry said France would neither delay nor accelerate delivery of the Mirages to Iraq under two contracts dating from mid-1977 and late 1979. But some French aviation industry sources said the planes were being produced at an unusually fast pace and that completion of the order could be expected rapidly.
French official sources had said that the contracts called for delivery to Iraq at the rate of two a month starting as early as November. Dassault, the frim manufacturing the aircraft, can produce seven or eight a month but a portion normally must be reserved for the French Air Force.
The industry sources said 10 of the Mirage F1s, which can fly better than twice the speed of sound, were ready for delivery before yesterday. The planes are understood to have been flown to Cyprus by French pilots and were to be flown out by Iraqi pilots.
French official observers have expressed puzzlement that Iraq has not really used its modern aviation and other advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf war. Iran has used its U.S.-supplied Phantom F15 jets with such effect that many military observers consider those planes to have been the major factor that saved Iran from defeat in the early days of the war.
The Iraqis have large numbers of Soviet-supplied Mig fighter-bombers. The Iraqi decision to buy significant numbers of French jets, military helicopters, tanks and other armored vehicles apparently reflected a desire to diversify.
The Iraqi Mirage pilots are understood to have been trained in France. The Iraqis reportedly have prepared a military shopping list that includes almost every sophisticated item in the French inventory, including Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers, Alpha Jet training and tactical support jets and a large fleet of naval vessels.
Before the gulf war, Iraq was France's second most important oil supplier after Saudi Arabia. France was also providing Iraq with atomic technology at a "nuclear university" near Baghdad -- a major atomic research and training facility at which the French had been training hundreds of Iraqi and other Arab nuclear scientists with two French-supplied reactors.
The center was attacked early in the war by Phantom jets officially admitted by Tehran to be Iranian but at first widely thought to be Israeli. The specter of an Iraqi atomic bomb has been a major theme of Israeli propaganda for some time.
A large advertisement in the Paris daily newspaper Le Monde this weekend underlines the political sensitivity of the French government's arms relationship with Iraq in the midst of the current French presidential election campaign.
Over a picture of an atomic mushroom cloud is the legend "Iraq: The Bomb . . . Giscard to Blame." The ad, taken out by the militant Jewish Renewal organization that is trying to mobilize the French Jewish vote against Giscard, calls on citizens "to oppose energetically this dangerous and suicidal project that threatens peace in the Near East."