Researcher out of Iranian jail, home in Paris amid talk of backroom deal

A French researcher held in Iran for 10 months returned home to Paris on Sunday just days after France defied Washington by refusing to extradite an alleged Iranian arms smuggler to the United States.

Clotilde Reiss, a 24-year-old lecturer and student of Persian language and Iranian history, had been held in Tehran since July on espionage charges after allegedly taking pictures and sending accounts of the demonstrations and violent crackdown that followed the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After arriving in Paris, she was whisked off to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Looking pale but otherwise healthy and in good spirits, she voiced solidarity with the detainees at Tehran’s Evin Prison, including two who were put to death in January for alleged political crimes.

“I am very, very happy to be back in my country, to regain my freedom and see my loved ones,” she told reporters.

In a statement, Sarkozy thanked the leaders of Brazil, Senegal and Syria for helping to secure Reiss’ release. But her liberation has been clouded by suggestions of a possible backroom deal between Tehran and Paris.

Meanwhile, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other top officials from his nation and Turkey, which are temporary members of the U.N. Security Council, arrived in Tehran over the weekend to try to resolve the standoff between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program, which some allege ultimately is meant to produce weapons.

After a weeks-long imprisonment in 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 had been since August.

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

Kakavand returned to Tehran just over a week ago. On Saturday, an Iranian court handed Reiss two concurrent five-year suspended sentences and converted her bail into a fine, her lawyer said Saturday. Authorities handed back her passport.

Paris and Tehran have denied any deal exchanging Reiss’ freedom for that of Kakavand, 37.

But analysts in Iran, Europe and the U.S. have suggested a link between the fates of the two.

“Of course it is quid pro quo, and this is a typical example of the cooperation between Western and Iranian intelligence agencies,” said a high-ranking European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Iran also is 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 suggested that the three were involved in espionage.

Reiss’ release “makes the case of the U.S. hikers much more difficult,” said Jacqueline Shire, an analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. “The U.S., unlike France, is not predisposed toward such deals, and they do not have the comfort of staying in an embassy while waiting for their case to be resolved.”