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

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.

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.

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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.)

France's clout in the EU is unclear. The European Union policy on Iran, which the French now seek to change, is to place EU-wide sanctions on Iran only if the UN Security Council votes for them. Kouchner this week pushed for a common EU position to apply sanctions, calling on Britain and Germany to help push the EU. But Kouchner also pointed out that if the Security Council doesn't vote for sanctions, some European countries, including France, Britain, and the Netherlands may work to apply sanctions bilaterally and encourage other to do so – an idea Kouchner credited Germany with.

Europe's negative reaction softening

Still, a lack of coordination if not agreement was evident in negative official statements around Europe over Kouchner's taking the high verbal ground on Iran this week. "It would be totally wrong to talk about a threat of war," stated a German foreign ministry spokesman. The Austrian foreign minister said, "It is incomprehensible to me that [Kouchner] would use martial rhetoric at this time."

Initial press reaction to France's Iran bid was uniformly negative in Europe and France. Yet by Tuesday, Le Monde was saying that France is "in the lead position" in Europe on Iran. Bernard Guetta, a public affairs commentator on FranceInter radio took a sophisticated middle position. Iran as the most powerful nation in the Middle East should give up its nuclear program, he said Tuesday, but Iran is essential to solving this problem and should be given carrots as well as sticks.

But critics, like Paris-based US commentator Axel Krause, argue, "Not many serious actors in Germany or Great Britain are seeing the French as leading on this issue. Kouchner's loose talk about military action is a gloss. No one in France will support air strikes or attacks on Iran."

Yet even if Kouchner's statements seemed excessive in some European capitals (the foreign minister backed down slightly this week, emphasizing his hope for peace and saying "I'm not a warmonger"), this doesn't mean concern isn't building in those cities over the effect of Iran's suspected uranium enrichment programs. Iran is out of compliance with deals it struck with the Europeans in 2003 to suspend its noncivilian nuclear activity, and by 2005 it was discovered that Iran was violating the agreement by restarting an enrichment program that scientists say would yield weapons-grade nuclear material.

States like the Netherlands and others could begin to join France in a more assertive line, experts say. Mr. Heisbourg points out a worry among some European diplomats that Israel will precipitously conduct air strikes on Iran, possibly dragging the US into further military action. "No one, including the Russians, wants that," he says.

As for the United States, "we very much welcome Foreign Minister Kouchner's statement that France has taken steps to discourage 'business as usual' with Iran," states Mark Pekala, the No. 2 diplomat at the US embassy in Paris. "We hope that other countries will adopt a similar position and increase the pressure.

"Also, we continue to believe the UN Security Council must move forward as soon as possible to adopt a third resolution under Chapter 7, imposing additional sanctions measures."

[Editor's note: The original version of the photo caption misidentified the participants of the Washington talks.]

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