Premier Jacques Chirac of France faced bitter condemnation from Britain and growing suspicion within France on Tuesday over his deal with Iran for the release of two French hostages in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, commenting on the French concessions that brought the two hostages home, told the House of Commons in London that “treating with terrorists only leads to more kidnapings and more violence.”
“That is the way we will not do it,” she went on. “The best defense against terrorists is to make clear that you will never give in to their demands.”
Even before Thatcher spoke to Parliament, an aide to Chirac said in Paris that “we are a little astonished” at reports of the fury of Thatcher and British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe and at editorials in London newspapers that accused France of “betrayal” and of “a cynical compact with terror.”
A cartoon in the Independent, a London newspaper, showed France pulling down the French flag from the Eiffel Tower and replacing it with a white flag of surrender.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman also was sharply critical, although he stopped short of accusing Paris of paying ransom.
“The real issue in all of this is not whether ransom was paid but whether, in effect, hostage-taking was rewarded,” he said. “We would regret any action which would encourage more terrorism, particularly if it also prolonged the agony of other hostages.”
Redman said the U.S. government has not been informed officially about the details of the Franco-Iran agreement, so he couched his responses in conditional terms. But he made clear that if media accounts of the deal are correct, the Reagan Administration feels it would reward hostage-taking.
“Several things are clear: one, the Iranian role in controlling the fate of hostages in Lebanon has again been confirmed, and, two, Iran is prepared to bargain with the lives of innocent people in exchange for money and to obtain the release of its embassy employee,” he said. “For our part, we don’t believe that such behavior should be rewarded.”
Critics have charged that the Reagan Administration has itself engaged in rewarding hostage-taking through the transfer of weapons to Tehran in the Iran-Contra affair that was designed, among other things, to secure the release of Americans held captive in Lebanon.
Chirac could take only limited solace from the reaction in France where joyful excitement over the return of the hostages Saturday has given way to a gnawing concern about the amount and kind of price paid.
Much may depend on whether Chirac, in his bargaining with Iran, succeeds in gaining the rapid release of the last three French hostages in Lebanon. If he does, Le Monde, the influential Paris newspaper, said in a front page editorial, “the controversy that has just begun in France will stop there. One does not fly against victory.”
But, Le Monde went on, if he fails, “the questioning will become more pressing.”
Chirac was not helped by a remark from President Francois Mitterrand, who, though insisting that it was best to say as little as possible while hostages still remained in Lebanon, told a television interviewer Monday, “We can not barter crime for innocence.”
In the view of critics, Chirac may have done just that: trading Wahid Gordji, an Iranian official suspected of helping a band of terrorists who killed 13 people in a series of bombings in 1986, for the two hostages and for a French diplomat facing trumped-up espionage charges in Tehran.
Spokesmen for the Chirac government found themselves spending a good deal of the day denying accusations that France had sent arms to Iran as part of the deal and acknowledging reports in both the French and foreign press that France intends to make a second repayment to Iran on a $1-billion loan that dates from the days of the late Shah of Iran.
For Chirac, the controversy was crucial. A conservative, he obviously intends to run in the French presidential elections next spring. According to the polls, Mitterrand, a Socialist and his most formidable rival, would defeat him easily. It is obvious that a successful resolution of the hostage affair might boost Chirac’s chances for the presidency, while a backlash over the affair would probably cripple his candidacy.
Confidence Vote Sought
Perhaps to divert attention from the controversy and to bolster his image, Chirac announced that he intended to seek a vote of confidence Thursday from the French National Assembly, mainly on his economic policies.
Thatcher made it clear that she intended to discuss the hostages issue with Chirac and other leaders at the summit of the European Economic Community in Copenhagen at the end of this week.
“The matter is bound to come up,” she said, ". . . and I shall reiterate what our policy is.”
In the meantime, Ewen Fergusson, the British ambassador, made a special visit to the Foreign Ministry in Paris, presumably to discuss the British government’s displeasure. But there was no official announcement about the purpose of the visit.
Legal organizations in Paris expressed concern over whether French justice had been violated by the departure of the 27-year-old Gordji, officially listed as an interpreter in the Iranian Embassy but widely regarded as a top-ranking diplomat with responsibility for intelligence. Gordji’s refusal to be questioned by a judge about the Paris bombings had led to a break in diplomatic relations between the two countries and a five-month siege of the embassy by French police.
Gordji finally did submit to questioning by a judge Sunday night, but this judicial procedure had all the earmarks of a sham. A plane was waiting for Gordji at the airport even as he entered the Palace of Justice in Paris under police escort. The judge questioned, exonerated and released him in a good deal of haste.
One editorial cartoon portrayed the judge as asking Gordji no more than whether he preferred an aisle or window seat in the smoking or non-smoking section of the waiting plane.
In London, the Independent reported that France had also sent arms to Iran as part of the trade, but the French Foreign Ministry denied the report “in the most categoric manner” as “totally without foundation.”
But there was no denial of other reports that France would make another repayment of part of the $1-billion loan made by Iran in 1974. France made a first repayment of $330 million in November, 1986, as part of its policy of normalizing relations with Iran in hopes of gaining release of the hostages. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said that negotiations for a final settlement of the loan might begin soon.
British anger at Chirac, according to the London newspapers, stemmed mainly from a fear that the French negotiations with Iran, in light of the British refusal to do the same, endangers the life of British hostage Terry Waite and from frustration over France’s refusal to abide by two international agreements against concessions to terrorists.
State Department spokesman Redman noted that France joined the other six industrialized nations at the economic summit in Venice earlier this year in declaring that states should refuse to make concessions to terrorists.
Asked if he was accusing France of breaking that agreement, he said, “I’m reminding you that there was a particular agreement at the summit. . . . I have given you what I can say at this point based on what we know of the emerging facts.”
Times staff writer Norman Kempster, in Washington, contributed to this article.