New York Times: Frances foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, sought Monday to tone down remarks he made in a radio and television interview the day before that the world had to prepare for possible war against Iran. The New York Times
By KATRIN BENNHOLD and ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: September 18, 2007
MOSCOW, Sept. 17 Frances foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, sought Monday to tone down remarks he made in a radio and television interview the day before that the world had to prepare for possible war against Iran.
Attacked verbally by Iran and quietly criticized within his own government, Mr. Kouchner shifted the focus away from the threat of war and back to a call for hard negotiations as the way to force Iran to abandon key nuclear activities.
The worst situation would be war, Mr. Kouchner told journalists en route to Moscow. And to avoid the worst, the French position is very clear: negotiate, negotiate, negotiate, and work with our European friends on credible sanctions.
On Sunday, Mr. Kouchner, a Socialist known for his blunt talk, said in an interview broadcast on RTL radio and LCI television: We will negotiate until the end. And at the same time we must prepare ourselves.
Asked what he meant in referring to preparation, he replied, It is necessary to prepare for the worst, adding, The worst, its war, sir.
Asked again to explain himself, Mr. Kouchner announced that France was doing military contingency planning for an eventual war, saying, We are preparing by trying first of all to put together plans that are the unique prerogative of the chiefs of staff, but that its not for tomorrow.
Lost in the off-the-cuff and freewheeling remarks about war planning was his other, less alarmist message: that France is committed to using diplomacy to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran, that no military action is planned and that he did not believe there would be an American military intervention while President Bush was in office.
But his remarks fueled speculation that France was moving closer to the Bush administration position that all options including war are on the table.
On Monday, Prime Minister François Fillon, a former labor and education minister, appeared to support Mr. Kouchner, adding to the sense that Frances stance had hardened.
Asked during a visit to an army base at Angoulême about Mr. Kouchners mention of war against Iran, Mr. Fillon replied, The foreign affairs minister is right because everybody can see that the situation in the Near East is extremely tense and that its getting worse.
Like Mr. Kouchner, he stressed that all steps must be taken to avoid war.
Adding to the confusion, the Foreign Ministry seemed to distance itself somewhat from Mr. Kouchners remarks. A deputy spokesman, Denis Simonneau, referred journalists on Monday to a speech President Nicolas Sarkozy made last month in which he also said Iran could be attacked militarily if it did not curb its nuclear program, but that such an outcome would be a disaster. He gave no indication that France would ever participate in military action against Iran or even tacitly support such an approach.
The Foreign Ministry instructed its diplomatic missions around the world to use the same, more cautious, formulation, ministry officials said.
Mr. Kouchners reference to war on Sunday infuriated Iran, which accused France of moving closer to Washington.
The use of such words creates tensions and is contrary to the cultural history and civilization of France, said Irans Foreign Ministry spokesman, Muhammad Ali Hosseini, in a statement on Monday.
An editorial in the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency on Monday said, The new occupants of the Élysée want to copy the White House.
In Vienna, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called for calm. I would not talk about any use of force, he said.
Stressing that only the Security Council could authorize the use of force, he urged the world to remember the lesson of Iraq before considering military action against Iran. We need to be cool, he said.
Certainly, France under President Sarkozy has toughened its policy toward Iran. Mindful that a third round of sanctions in the United Nations Security Council is unlikely for at least several months, France has begun to push an initiative for separate European sanctions against Iran.
Mr. Sarkozys predecessor, Jacques Chirac, also took a hard line against Irans nuclear program but was much less inclined to use sanctions, because, as he often said, he did not believe they were effective.
Frances foreign intelligence service has a shorter timeline for Irans prospects for producing a nuclear weapon than that of American intelligence, according to senior French officials. American intelligence analysts put that date between 2010 and 2015.
In Paris before heading to Moscow for bilateral talks on Iran and other issues, Mr. Kouchner said European countries should prepare their own sanctions outside of the United Nations.
These would be European sanctions that each country, individually, must put in place with its own banking, commercial and industrial system, he said. The English and the Germans are interested in talking about this.
While some officials inside the French government felt that Mr. Kouchner had done no harm with his mention of war, others said he should have been more disciplined in his choice of words.
In an ideal world he wouldnt have answered the questions in the way he did, said one French official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on diplomatic issues. His words were not completely thought out and scripted. It doesnt mean there is a change of policy.
Katrin Bennhold reported from Moscow, and Elaine Sciolino from Paris. Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran, and Nicola Clark from Paris.