On September 16, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said negotiations with Tehran should continue "to the end," but he cautioned that the world should also prepare for a possible military conflict.
In an interview on French television and radio, Kouchner said "we must prepare for the worst." Asked how France would prepare for a military conflict with Iran, Kouchner said, "We prepare, first of all, by trying to put together plans that are the prerogative of the head of state, but that is not for tomorrow. We prepare by saying we won't accept the building of this [nuclear] bomb."
Kouchner’s words were an echo of the French president's warning a month ago.
In August, in his first major foreign policy address, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said an Iran with nuclear weapons was “unacceptable.”
Sarkozy then invoked the possibility of a military confrontation -- although he said such a scenario would be “catastrophic.”
In Tehran today, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini responded to Kouchner's statement by saying it damages the credibility of France. Hosseini said the use of such words "creates tensions" and is contrary to French culture and history.
In Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei cautioned that force would only be used when "every other option has been exhausted," and he said that point had not been reached.
Meanwhile, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, reiterated that Iran is determined to pursue its nuclear program.
A Stronger Stand
Olivier Roy, a regional expert with the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, told RFE/RL the French warnings should be seen as a signal that France has toughened its policy toward Tehran.
"France has taken a harder stand on the issue," Roy said. "I think this means that the French authorities believe that only economic pressure is not enough and won’t get the results. They believe that the threat of military action and economic pressure could put enough pressure on Iran."
France’s latest warning also comes during a week-long meeting -- dominated by discussions about Iran -- that is taking place at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.
Kouchner said in his interview that Paris continues to support negotiations with Tehran at such forums.
But he also added that if Iran fails to stop its uranium-enrichment activities, the European Union could impose sanctions that go beyond current UN measures against Tehran.
It appears the timing of Kouchner’s remarks is designed to put maximum pressure on Iran.
"While negotiations are under way and they should intensify, we have indeed decided to get ready, eventually, for European sanctions outside of those imposed by the United Nations," Kouchner said. "Our German friends proposed such sanctions and we discussed the matter a few days ago."
Kouchner said he has already asked French firms, including oil giant Total, not to invest in any new projects in Iran or take part in any further economic deals.
Iran, for its part, has reiterated that it will continue its uranium-enrichment program, which it says is not for military use.
An editorial by the state-run IRNA news agency today accused the French authorities of seeking to "copy the White House."
(RFE/RL’s Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
WHAT DOES TEHRAN REALLY THINK? On August 22, Radio Farda correspondent Fatemeh Aman spoke with Alex Vatanka, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group, by telephone from Alexandria, Virginia. Vatanka discussed the possible impact that comprehensive sanctions could have for Iran.
Radio Farda: Some Iranian authorities are trying to create the impression that they aren't concerned about the possibility of international sanctions against it. They emphasize that what Iran has achieved so far has happened despite the sanctions already in place against it. Are they really not afraid of sanctions?
Vatanka: I think that what the Iranians are trying to do is to continue to play this balancing act. On the one hand, they are trying to say, "Look, we have done without you for 27 years; we can continue." On the other hand, if you look at every other major Iranian overture toward the U.S., obviously what they are hoping to do is remove those sanctions. It is the sanctions that have been the biggest obstacle to a genuine expansion in the Iranian economy. It is the sanctions and U.S. policies vis-a-vis Iran that have, for instance, kept Iran from joining the World Bank. It is sanctions and so on that have made the Iranian oil industry have such a tough time in bringing investment into the strategic oil and gas sectors. People like [former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-]Rafsanjani back in the mid 1990s even kept certain fields untouched because the idea was that U.S. companies should have those once the sanctions were lifted.
I think sanctions are quite important to the Iranians, but at the same time what they are trying to say is, "Don't assume that we are going to fall off our chair just because you mentioned the sanctions card." It is part of a kind diplomatic chess game going on by Tehran. But remember if we look and listen to Iranian reformists, this is being openly debated inside Iran. The question that is being asked of [President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his entourage] is, "What is the ultimate objective?" Is it just Islamic independence? Is it just the ability to enrich uranium? The debate in Iran by the reformists -- and I think a lot of people would sympathize with this -- is, "What are we being sanctioned for exactly and what policies do you have to make sure that those sanctions don't hit us harder than we have already been hit?"
Remember, the big issue here is this: Iran has been sanctioned by the U.S. Iran has never faced comprehensive United Nations sanctions. The Iranian people have never suffered on a scale that the Iraqi people, for instance, suffered because of such sanctions. So it is kind of disingenuous of these senior leaders to pretend that Iran has already gone through comprehensive sanctions. Iran has not. And it will be totally different set of circumstances that will have a totally different impact on Iranian society and the economy, should the UN impose comprehensive sanctions on the country.