PARIS, JULY 19 -- The French government, seeking to avoid a new hostage crisis, pursued negotiations with Iran today to arrange the departure of its diplomats from the surrounded French Embassy in Tehran.
Underlining the concern of French officials, Social Affairs and Labor Minister Philippe Seguin said "the freedom of some of our fellow countrymen" is at stake in the talks. He called on Iran's Islamic leadership "to show responsibility" in resolving the dispute left over from Friday's diplomatic break.
"We are now living through a situation that is extremely worrying and that is, in a lot of regards, extremely serious," Seguin said in a radio interview.
Strengthening its hand, the government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac prevented the departure from France of five Iranian diplomats and about 40 nondiplomatic officials employed by the Iranian Embassy here. An unknown number remained inside the building, the Interior Ministry said.
As the negotiations went on, the Iranian Embassy remained surrounded by heavily armed French police to control comings and goings. Similarly, the French Embassy was surrounded in Tehran, with more than 20 officials inside -- 11 of them with diplomatic status.
Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, in an announcement relayed by Tehran Radio, said the negotiations continued through diplomats in both capitals. But he accused Chirac's government of showing "arrogant characteristics" by preventing Iranian diplomats from leaving France and said the blockade of the embassy was carried out "in a very fierce and brutal manner and in an insolent way."
The broadcast, monitored by news agencies, said Mousavi also announced that Pakistan has agreed to take care of Iranian interests in Paris. France announced yesterday that Italy will represent French interests in Tehran.
The French Foreign Ministry said it still is pushing to arrange the departure of diplomats and other official personnel from both countries by Wednesday. That would be five days after France and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in an angry confrontation over an Iranian official wanted by France for questioning about terrorist bombings here.
French officials from President Francois Mitterrand on down have insisted that the official, Wahid Gordji, must respond to a summons for questioning. Gordji, listed as an embassy translator and not a diplomat, does not have diplomatic immunity. But he has taken refuge in the Iranian Embassy, which according to international practice falls outside French jurisdiction.
Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond reiterated tonight that Gordji will not be included in any exchange until he submits to questioning by a judge investigating last fall's wave of bombings. "This is not negotiable," Raimond told an interviewer on television.
Chirac's government, therefore, faced the difficult task of persuading Iran to release all French diplomats and official personnel in Tehran while insisting that Gordji must leave the embassy and report to a French investigating magistrate. Since Gordji fled into the embassy six weeks ago, Iran has rejected this demand.
In an apparent effort to create a parallel with Gordji, Iranian officials last week said a French consul in Tehran, Jean-Paul Torri, must appear before an Islamic revolutionary court to face allegations of espionage and drug trafficking. Iranian Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi yesterday expanded the charges -- which France has denied -- to include a number of unnamed diplomats in the embassy. He said they had aided Iranian dissidents.
French officials pointed out that Torri has diplomatic immunity under the Vienna convention on treatment of diplomats and cannot be prosecuted.
Beyond the specific charges, however, French officials and analysts expressed fear that Iranian authorities would disregard international conventions and take the diplomats hostage. This fear put the French negotiators at a disadvantage, one analyst suggested, since Chirac would be reluctant to retaliate in kind by holding the Iranians hostage here.
In an allusion to these fears, Seguin declared Iran has a "comportment that is not always, to say the least, in conformity with international rules." Five Frenchmen have been seized in Lebanon in actions variously attributed to Iranian interests.
In the back of French officials' minds has been the ordeal of U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran for 444 days in 1979 and 1980 and the humiliation inflicted on the United States by Islamic radicals.
That hostage-taking seriously hurt the political fortunes of then-president Jimmy Carter. Although the French public has rallied behind the government, irrespective of political sentiment, any similar hostage crisis could set back Chirac's hopes to become president in elections scheduled next spring.