Iran risks attack over atomic push, French president says

Posted in Iraq , Europe | 28-Aug-07 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris on Monday.

PARIS: In his first major foreign policy speech as president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that Iran could be attacked militarily if it did not live up to its international obligations to curb its nuclear program.

Addressing France's ambassadorial corps, Sarkozy stressed that such an outcome would be a disaster. He did not say that France would ever participate in military action against Iran or even tacitly support such an approach.

But the mere fact that he raised the specter of the use of force is likely to be perceived by Iran as a warning of the consequences of its continuing course of action and by the Bush administration as acceptance of its line that no option, including the use of force, can be excluded.

Sarkozy praised the current diplomatic initiative by the world's powers that threatens even tougher sanctions mandated by the United Nations if Iran does not stop enriching uranium for possible use in a nuclear weapon, but holds out the possibility of incentives if Iran complies.

This two-pronged approach, he said, "is 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."

Calling the Iranian nuclear crisis "the most serious that weighs on the international order today," Sarkozy also reiterated his position that a nuclear-armed Iran was "unacceptable" for France.

Although Sarkozy's aides said that French policy had not changed, some foreign policy experts were stunned by the blunt, if brief remark.

"This came out of the blue," said Fran├žois Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and author of a forthcoming book on Iran's nuclear program. "To actually say that if diplomacy fails the choice will be to accept a nuclear Iran or bomb Iran, this is a diplomatic blockbuster."

Sarkozy's speech, an annual ritual outlining France's foreign policy goals, came amid extraordinarily high approval ratings more than three months into his presidency. According to a TNS-Sofres telephone poll of 1,000 people published on Monday in the daily Le Figaro, 71 percent said they were satisfied with Sarkozy's performance. A number of other polls put his approval rating higher than 60 percent.

But his debut before his ambassadors was marred by a diplomatic imbroglio involving his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who was forced to apologize to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq for calling for his resignation.

Maliki had demanded an apology from Kouchner, who was quoted on Newsweek magazine's Web site as saying that the government was "not functioning" and that he had told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by phone, "He's got to be replaced."

Sarkozy made no mention of the diplomatic gaffe. Instead, he went out of his way to repeatedly praise Kouchner, an outspoken humanitarian activist and former UN administrator of Kosovo who left the Socialist party to join Sarkozy's conservative government.

In a subsequent speech to the 180 visiting ambassadors, Kouchner veered from his prepared remarks to say that he had apologized to Maliki on Monday morning. But Kouchner has a reputation for being unable to hide his true feelings. He also suggested in the same sentence that the beleaguered prime minister was already on his way out, saying that he "may be leaving us soon."

Most of Sarkozy's speech was devoted to plotting a new, activist course for France's role in the world, particularly in preventing what he called a confrontation between Islam and the West by working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and crises in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.

Praising his predecessor, he reiterated that "France was - thanks to Jacques Chirac - is and remains hostile" to the American-led war in Iraq, adding, "History proved France right."

Calling for a concrete deadline for the withdrawal of troops, he described Iraq as "a nation that is falling apart in a merciless civil war," where the Sunni-Shiite divide can ignite conflict throughout the Middle East and where terrorists are setting up permanent bases to attack targets around the world.

During a headline-grabbing three-day visit to Iraq last week, Kouchner offered France's help in stabilizing the country, including mediating among warring communities, and working with the United Nations to play a bigger role.

Although Sarkozy praised Kouchner's mission and stated in his speech that France was prepared to engage with Iraq, he failed to make any specific proposal.

In a move that is certain to be welcomed in Washington, he announced that France would send more troops to Afghanistan to train the Afghan Army, despite his statement during the campaign that France would not remain in Afghanistan forever. The Defense Ministry confirmed that France would send 150 more troops.

But Sarkozy harshly criticized the Bush administration for going to war against Iraq on its own and failing adequately to address global warming.

"It is clear now, and I mean it, that the unilateral use of force leads to failure," he said of the Iraq crisis. As for the environment, he said, the United States "unfortunately is not demonstrating the 'leadership' capacity that it claims in other areas."

He warned against what he called a drift toward "the clash of power politics," criticizing not only the United States but also Russia and China.

"Russia is imposing its return to the world scene by making somewhat brutal use of its assets, especially oil and gas," Sarkozy said. China, meanwhile, "is transforming its insatiable quest for raw materials into a strategy of control, especially in Africa."

He urged the United States not to fear European efforts to forge its own defense identity outside of the NATO structure, while he urged European Union nations to accept a larger share of defense spending to deal with new and bigger global threats.

Among the Europeans, France's defense budget is second only to Britain's, with both countries spending more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. The two countries, together with Germany and Italy, which spend less, accounted for 75 percent of Europe's defense spending in 2005.

"We can't continue with four countries paying for the security of all the rest," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy said that France would push for a European security strategy to be adopted when it assumes the EU presidency for the second half of 2008.

Among his other proposals are the eventual expansion of members in the G-8 group of the world's largest industrial powers from 8 to 13, to include China and other developing powers: Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and India.

Breaking with the position of Chirac, he also left open the door to renewing high-level dialogue with Syria, if it backed French efforts to end the political crisis in Lebanon.

Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting.

Iran pledges to help IAEA

Iran on Monday offered some cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency in its investigation of an alleged secret uranium processing project linked by U.S. intelligence to a nuclear arms program, even while dismissing such claims as "baseless allegations," The Associated Press reported.

The pledge was contained in a memorandum dated Monday from the Iranian mission to the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog. In it, Tehran also outlined its timetable for providing other sensitive information sought by the IAEA in its examination of more than two decades of nuclear activity by the Islamic republic, most of it clandestine until disclosed more than four years ago.