PARIS — France decided Monday to send home an Iranian agent it had jailed for murdering the Shah's last prime minister, two days after Tehran freed a young French academic accused of spying.
Ali Vakili Rad was serving a life sentence for stabbing Shapour Bakhtiar to death at his home outside Paris in August 1991, but he had recently asked for parole and Iranian leaders had linked his case to that of Clotilde Reiss.
A court is due to rule on the parole request on Tuesday, but an aide to Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said a deportation order would be signed later Monday, paving the way for his release and return back home.
"I am hopeful that at the May 18 hearing, Ali Vakili Rad will be released," said his lawyer Sorin Margulis.
The decision came after Reiss, a 24-year-old French researcher, returned to Paris on Sunday at the end of a 10-month ordeal in Iran, where she was put on trial on charges of acting against national security.
Press reports and the French opposition immediately raised the question of whether Reiss had been released as part of some backroom deal with Iran, a charge denied by both Paris and Tehran.
Reiss, a fluent Farsi speaker and Persian specialist, was arrested on July 1 shortly before she was due to fly home after a six-month study and teaching stint in the city of Isfahan.
She was accused of taking and emailing photos of protests that erupted after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, and handing material to a diplomat at the French embassy in Tehran.
Her return came a week after a Paris court rejected a US extradition request for an Iranian national accused of buying electronic components and exporting them illegally to be used by Tehran's military.
Engineer Majid Kakavand, who had been arrested in March 2009 at the request of Washington, flew home to Iran last Friday.
France denies that Kakavand's release and the imminent release of Vakili Rad are linked to Reiss's case, but the timing of the two decisions fuelled speculation of a quid pro quo.
Iran hailed the French court's decision on the Kakavand case as "a positive point in Franco-Iranian relations."
But Vakili Rad's lawyer Margulis told AFP that the Reiss affair "did nothing but delay my client's release."
After welcoming Reiss to the Elysee Palace on Sunday, President Nicolas Sarkozy thanked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade for their mediating efforts.
In September, Ahmadinejad had linked Reiss's release to the fate of Iranian nationals held in French jails but Sarkozy had vowed that there would be no swap.
Vakili Rad was convicted of murdering Bakhtiar at his home in Suresnes, west of Paris, on August 6, 1991. He was sentenced to life in prison but became eligible for parole in July last year.
The former Iranian prime minister fled to France during the Iranian Revolution in 1980 and his home had been under police surveillance ever since.
Vakili Rad and an accomplice were allowed inside the villa by an aide to Bakhtiar, who was murdered along with his assistant Fouroush Katibeh.
Arrested in Switzerland, Vakili Rad stood trial in France in 1994.
Meanwhile the French government on Monday formally denied that Reiss was working for foreign intelligence when she took pictures of opposition protests after a former spy suggested she had been an intelligence resource.
"These allegations are pure fantasy. They are also irresponsible," said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Pierre Siramy, a former employee at the DGSE foreign intelligence agency had earlier told Europe 1 radio that Reiss "is not a spy. She was a contact for our representative in Tehran.
"She provided reports on the political climate and in the area of arms proliferation. She did it voluntarily," Siramy said, in remarks that were immediately denied by the government.
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