French researcher’s release from Iran raises questions

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A French researcher held in Tehran since the days after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections left the Islamic Republic for Paris on Sunday morning just days after France defied Washington by refusing to extradite an alleged Iranian arms smuggler to the United States.

Clotilde Reiss, 24, a lecturer and student of Persian language and Iranian history, had been stuck in Iran since July on espionage charges. She is set to arrive Sunday in Paris to join her family and meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Our compatriot Clotilde Reiss boarded a plane of the French government to Dubai Airport and is currently heading to France,” said a statement posted to the president’s official website.

After a weeks-long imprisonment in Tehran’s Evin Prison and a televised confession during a mass trial, Reiss was released on $350,000 bail to the custody of the French Embassy in the Iranian capital, where she has been since August.

She was allowed to leave Iran just days after a French judge refused a U.S. extradition request for Majid Kakavand, an Iranian businessman and engineer accused by the FBI of attempting to purchase and smuggle sensitive equipment to Iran. Kakavand, his lawyer and the Iranian government have disputed the charge, alleging the U.S. had forged documents to make its case.

Kakavand returned to Tehran on May 7. Eight days later, an Iranian court handed Reiss a 10-year suspended sentence and converted her bail into a fine, her lawyer said Saturday. Authorities also handed back her passport.

Reiss’ release has been clouded by suggestions of a possible backroom deal between Tehran and Paris that undermined Obama administration attempts to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

Paris and Tehran have denied any explicit or implicit deal with Iran to exchange Reiss’s freedom for that of Kakavand, 37, who allegedly headed a Malaysia-based procurement ring that purchased sensitive technologies on behalf of the Iranian military.

“The judiciary reviewed the case of Ms. Reiss and based on the judiciary’s verdict, a permit allowing Ms. Reiss to leave the country has been issued,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the semi-official Fars News Agency Sunday. “The release of Ms Reiss is in no way related to Mr. Kakavand’s release.”

But analysts in Iran, France and the U.S. have suggested a link between the fates of the two. After years of diplomatic strains between Paris and Tehran, Mehmanparast last week described the release of Kakavand “as a positive point in Iran-France relations,” according to the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency.

Iran is also holding Americans Shane Bauer, 27, Joshua Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31, who according to their families strayed into Iranian territory during a hiking expedition in northern Iraq last summer. Iran has hinted the three were involved in espionage.

U.S. officials are also seeking information on Robert Levinson, a 62-year-old private investigator who disappeared during a trip to the Iranian island of Kish in 2007. Iran says it has no information about his whereabouts.

Iran accuses the U.S. of kidnapping and detaining Iranian nationals, including several with ties to its military and to its nuclear program.