France's foreign minister has accused Iran of trying to create an "axis" of military and political influence stretching from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.
Speaking in an interview with France 2 television broadcast on December 12, Jean-Yves Le Drian said that rather than pursue ambitions to expand its military presence in the region, Iran as well as Russia should work with the United Nations to try to establish peace in war-torn Syria.
"The Iranian presence and the desire to make an axis from the Mediterranean to Tehran, [I say] no!" Le Drian said in the interview. "There is a Syria that needs to exist" free from foreign powers and influence, he said.
Many Arab leaders argue that Iran, by providing military advisers and militia fighters to both Iraq and Syria, has been projecting its power with the goal of creating an arc of influence stretching from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean.
The United States and Israel have also voiced concern that Iran is strengthening its foothold in the Mediterranean region and have accused Tehran of arming its allies and Israel's enemies -- Lebanon's Hizballah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Le Drian has previously accused Iran of having "hegemonic" intentions in the region, provoking a countercharge from Tehran that France is taking a "biased and partisan approach to the crises in the region."
In the French television interview, Le Drian credited Iran and Russia with helping to turn the tide in favor of the Syrian government in its six-year civil war with Sunni rebels. Iran for years has provided militia troops and military advisers to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government while Russia since 2015 has provided crucial air support.
Citing successes on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
But Iran has made no such announcement and Iranian leaders have insisted they will retain their influence and presence in Syria and elsewhere.
"The aim of the U.S. administration is to get Iran out of Syria" as part of any Syrian peace settlement, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on November 30.
"The U.S. and Russia cannot decide for Iran. We are there at the request of the Syrian government," Zarif said. "It's our region. It's the Persian Gulf, not the Gulf of Mexico. We are going nowhere."
Le Drian took issue with Iran's stance in the interview, saying that "Syria must become a sovereign state again and that means [being] independent of the pressure and presence of other countries."
At the same time, he said: "The main actors in this affair are Russia and Iran. They need to use their weight to lead a political solution with the other members of the [UN] Security Council."
His call for Iran to stop interfering in Syria comes a week after France hosted a summit of Western powers that called on both Iran and Saudi Arabia to stop meddling in the affairs of Lebanon.