PARIS, NOV. 30 -- France will turn over $330 million to Iran this week to conclude a secret accord that led to the freeing of two French hostages in Beirut and the end of police blockades of the two nations' embassies over the weekend, an authoritative French source said today.
The transfer of funds, which comes at a time when Iran is reportedly facing growing financial problems, is a second payment on a long outstanding loan that Paris has withheld as pressure on Tehran. The government here insists that it is not paying any ransom for the release of hostages.
These developments are the result of secret negotiations between France and Iran that began last summer in Pakistan, according to the source, who has been deeply involved in the talks and who insisted on anonymity. This French intermediary and other sources provided a detailed reconstruction of the contacts between the two countries.
According to this reconstruction, Manucher Ghorbanifar -- the controversial Iranian middleman who influenced the White House on the arms-for-hostages swap that produced the Iran-contra scandal -- advised the clandestine French negotiating team on how to contact the hostage-takers and operated as a consultant during the operation.
He insisted they read the Tower commission report on the Iran-contra affair, which, he asserted, showed all the mistakes the French should avoid in dealing with the Iranians.
French probes to see if they could get some American hostages included in the deal were sharply rebuffed by the captors, who reportedly are angry and bitter over the disclosures in Washington about secret U.S.-Iranian contacts run by the National Security Council staff in 1985 and 1986. The captors vowed, one of the French intermediaries said, that the Americans would never be freed.
Iran agreed to the outline of the arrangement with France in September, primarily out of concern about its growing diplomatic isolation and the desire to win the freedom of an Iranian being held for questioning about terrorism in Paris. But recent fighting in Beirut delayed the freeing of the hostages and nearly derailed the deal at the last moment.
Syria played no role in arranging the release of the two French journalists, Jean-Louis Normandin and Roger Auque on Friday, but Syrian forces sought to take them after their release to Damascus to make it appear that Syria had been instrumental in their release.
The release of Normandin and Auque, who had been held by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization, provided a much-needed political boost for the government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.
Despairing of accomplishing anything with Iran after the break in diplomatic relations with Iran last summer, Chirac turned the hostage problem over to Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, who set up the small clandestine negotiating team led by a tenacious former secret service agent named Jean-Charles Marchiani. Both Marchiani and Pasqua are from Corsica, a fact that reportedly helped impress the Iranians to whom Ghorbanifar led the French negotiators.
"They knew Corsicans did not talk, that they would not be exposed to the kind of dangers they were exposed to after the revelations about the American contacts. And we did not mix in arms in this. We knew that would end in disaster," a source in the negotiations said.
Ghorbanifar's exact role in the negotiations for the French hostages could not be determined, but the description provided suggested that he had not been directly involved in the crucial conversations with the Iranians, as he was with the U.S. effort led by Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Ghorbanifar is described in the Tower commission report issued in February and the congressional committees report on the Iran-contra affair as a wealthy wheeler-dealer who lives in Paris and has had extensive dealings with intelligence services of a number of countries. He was branded as unreliable by the Central Intelligence Agency and dropped from the American negotiations with the Iranians after heated debates over whether he could deliver the hostages.
His primary contact appears to have been through Marchiani, a self-assured operative close to Pasqua who has been identified in French press accounts as a former secret service agent expelled from the service for being too deeply involved in political scandal in the 1970s.
Marchiani has made a serious study of the American efforts to trade arms for hostages, and sought at one stage in his conversations with the Iranians to include in the deal Joseph J. Cicippio and Edward A. Tracy, two Americans kidnaped in late 1986 who are being held by the Revolutionary Justice Organization. But the effort was immediately rebuffed by Iranian representatives, who angrily denounced the United States for failing to honor its agreements and for publicizing the contacts after they were disclosed in a Beirut newspaper.
The decisive phase of the French-Iranian contacts began in mid-November, when Marchiani left Paris for Beirut. He waited there 10 days before getting word that the hostages would be delivered to him last Thursday. But a sudden surge in fighting prevented the captors from reaching the arranged meeting point or from being able to telephone Marchiani that day.
They contacted Agence France-Presse and a Beirut newspaper with a press communique that included instructions to a "Mr. Stephani," the pseudonym that Marchiani was using in Beirut, to meet them at another destination.
The communique also alerted Syrian troops, who arrived at the exchange point at the same time as Marchiani. But the Corsican, accompanied by French security guards, faced the Syrians down and took control of the two hostages. He flew with them to Corsica, where he and Pasqua met over a quick lunch of celebration, and the interior minister then accompanied Normandin and Auque to Paris.
The French envoys who dealt with the Revolutionary Justice Organization reportedly are convinced that it is totally controlled by Iranians, as are the other organizations that still hold three French hostages and eight Americans.
The Chirac government will continue to try to win the freedom of the three French hostages, but the authoritative source reported that the departure from France yesterday of Wahid Gordji, the Iranian official whose refusal to testify in a terrorism inquiry led France to break relations with Iran, significantly reduces France's leverage.
Details of the $330 million payment that France will make to Iran are being worked out in Vienna. It is the second part of repayment of a billion-dollar loan made in 1974 to France's Atomic Energy Commission by the government of the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Paris has acknowledged the debt, but tied repayment of it to progress on the hostage issue. The first payment, in the same amount, was made a year ago.