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France's tough gambit on Iran

Ahead of key international meetings this week, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner shocked diplomats with talk of war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2007


In a bid to vault itself into a more assertive role on Iran's international obligations over its uranium enrichment program, traditionally moderate France has suddenly started talking tough.

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As the new face of French diplomacy, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has certainly scored world attention by raising the specter of war with Iran and calling for strong European sanctions on Tehran. "We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war," he said Sunday on RTL radio.

Mr. Kouchner's words shocked some diplomats, aggravated others, and caught Europeans by surprise, though they now appear orchestrated ahead of key international meetings in Vienna and Washington this week.

Tehran immediately accused France of being a "translator of White House policy." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after meeting with Kouchner in Moscow Tuesday, reiterated Russia's concern with increasingly frequent mention of the use of force against Iran.

Indeed, the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy continues to make waves in foreign affairs, attempting to break with the low-impact diplomatic status France was not enjoying in recent years.

A French high-profile framing of the Iran nuclear issue – sanctions or a disastrous war – dates to an equally surprising talk Sarkozy gave Aug. 27. The president, in an annual meeting with French ambassadors, described a dual approach on Iran as "the only one that can enable us to avoid being faced with an alternative that I call catastrophic: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."

François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, argues that Kouchner's statements were intended for both Tehran and Moscow. "The Iranian nuclear program is going very quickly," he says. "But the Iranians simply do not believe in the risk of air-strikes against them, so it is important not to use weasel-words like 'options.' Sarkozy used the word 'bombing' in late August while everyone was at the beach, and now Kouchner is using the 'war' word. I hope it caught everyone's attention."

Speaking Monday on the sidelines of a week-long International Atomic Energy Agency conference, IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei warned of "hype" on Iran and urged patience and compliance with UN Security Council resolutions – citing Iraq as a cautionary example. On Friday, the US hosts the four other permanent Security Council members – Britain, China, France, and Russia – as well as Germany, for talks in Washington about possible sanctions against Iran.

Can France follow through?

While France is taking a full-blown rhetorical lead on Iran, its diplomatic lead is more in question. Critics say Sarkozy and Kouchner have not done the tough shoe-leather work behind the scenes needed to realize the common EU foreign policy Sarkozy himself supports. French foreign ministry sources questioned whether the Iranian threat is taken with enough seriousness by "other countries."

But Sarkozy is widely seen in Europe as veering from issue to issue, tireless but not always coordinating with his cabinet ministers. (When Sarkozy's wife Cecelia went to Libya early this month to secure a deal with Muammar Qaddafi, Kouchner was not even aware of the trip.)