Iran General NewsChirac, on his own, reaches out to Iran

Chirac, on his own, reaches out to Iran

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International Herald Tribune: President Jacques Chirac has begun a unilateral diplomatic initiative toward Iran to help resolve the crisis in Lebanon, despite opposition from his own foreign minister and some of France’s close allies, three senior French officials said Tuesday. The International Herald Tribune

By Elaine Sciolino

PARIS: President Jacques Chirac has begun a unilateral diplomatic initiative toward Iran to help resolve the crisis in Lebanon, despite opposition from his own foreign minister and some of France’s close allies, three senior French officials said Tuesday.

But Chirac was so eager to secure Iran’s support on Lebanon, where about 1,700 French troops are stationed as United Nations peacekeepers, that earlier this month, he arranged to send Foreign Minister Philippe Douste- Blazy to Tehran. But he quickly found himself in the embarrassing position of ordering the trip to be called off two days before it was to have taken place, the officials said.

Both Douste-Blazy and senior Foreign Ministry officials concluded that such a trip was doomed to fail and would send the wrong signal only weeks after the Security Council unanimously approved sanctions intended to curb Iran’s nuclear program, they added. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on such a sensitive diplomatic issue.

Douste-Blazy was put in the uncomfortable position of having to tell Chirac that he did not want to go, one senior official said.

“This is not French diplomacy at its best,” the official said.

The 74-year-old president was seeking Iran’s commitment to play a positive role in Lebanon, specifically in helping to curb the activities of the radical Shiite Hezbollah organization that enjoys support from Iran. He also wants to win Iran’s support for an international tribunal to try the killers of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, who was a close personal friend.

Chirac repeatedly has ruled out any dialogue with Syria, which he blames for Hariri’s assassination, though it too gives support to Hezbollah.

When Douste-Blazy visited their capitals this month, the foreign ministers of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt informed Douste-Blazy that they strongly opposed any such initiative to Iran.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, was so determined to stop the visit that he told Douste-Blazy in uncharacteristically blunt terms, “I am going to tell you, ‘Do not go,'” a senior French official paraphrased the Saudi minister as saying.

The French initiative runs counter to a Bush administration strategy. The United States is seeking new ways to punish Iran, by building up American forces in the Persian Gulf, persuading many international businesses to cut off dealings with Tehran and interfering with Iranians operating inside Iraqi territory. In so doing, the administration has rejected the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that it engage with Iran.

The Bush administration was not consulted in advance about the initiative, which was disclosed in Le Monde on Tuesday afternoon, but when it did learn of the plan, Stephen Hadley, the Bush administration’s national security advisor, protested the visit to Jean-David Levitte, France’s ambassador in Washington.

In subsequent communications with R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, and Craig Stapleton, the American Ambassador to France, the Foreign Ministry gave assurances that it was trying hard to insure that Douste-Blazy did not travel to Iran.

Iran, meanwhile, has officially has expressed its displeasure that the trip has been canceled.

For the moment, Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former head of France’s DGSE foreign intelligence service and former ambassador to Egypt, is planning to make the trip to Tehran, leaving open the possibility that the foreign minister could follow at a later, unspecified date, a senior French official said.

But the initiative is so ad hoc and divisive that one senior official said even Cousseran’s trip might not take place.

Chirac’s initiative is surprising because he consistently has taken a hard line both against Iran and its nuclear program, privately expressing the view that the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted. French officials stressed that discussion of Iran’s nuclear program was not part of the new French initiative.

But Chirac’s interest in Lebanon is described by some of his close aides as an “obsession” and he seems driven to help bolster its weak government before his presidential mandate runs out in May, even if it means courting Tehran.

To that end, next week, Chirac is hosting an international conference of thirty countries and organizations on the foreign ministers’ level in Paris aimed at pledging international aid for the reconstruction of Lebanon, and he is determined that it be a success. Neither Iran nor Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government, have been invited.

Hezbollah and its backers have relentlessly criticized the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, saying it has lost its legitimacy and calling on it to resign.

For Douste-Blazy to visit Iran would be a diplomatic coup for the Islamic Republic. The last time France sent a senior delegation to Tehran was in October 2003 when Dominique de Villepin, the current prime minister who was then foreign minister, spent less than a day there along with his British and German counterparts.

The trio launched an ambitious nuclear initiative aimed at rewarding Iran with political, economic and security incentives in return for Iran’s suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. The initiative fell apart — after several revisions and reiterations — after Iran rejected international demands to stop making enriched uranium, which can be used to make energy or to fuel bombs.

The French initiative on Iran underscores the disarray of French foreign policy as Chirac nears the end of his second term as president.

It had been developed inside the Elysée Palace by Maurice Gourdault- Montagne, Chirac’s national security advisor. When Gordault-Montagne met with the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, on the fringes of a security conference in Bahrain last month, Mottaki suggested that Douste- Blazy visit Tehran.

Douste-Blazy has met Mottaki twice, once in Lebanon last year and again at the United Nations last year. But Douste- Blazy concluded it would be impossible to meet again with him in Iran, particularly after he was told that Mottaki was the Iranian official who opened a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran that was condemned around the world.

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