Squeezing harder

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The Economist: France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is pushing for tougher tactics towards Iran. The Economist

Sep 19th 2007 | PARIS
From The Economist print edition

France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is pushing for tougher tactics towards Iran

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IN MAY last year, when the Americans first offered to join direct talks with Iran over the future of its nuclear programme, French diplomats were jubilant. At last, their line went, the Americans were giving a chance to diplomacy, as the French had long advocated; military options seemed in retreat. So what was Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister and co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières, a humanitarian charity, doing this week declaring with regard to Iran that “it is necessary to prepare for the worst…the worst is war”?

France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has long argued for both a tougher stance towards Iran than that of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and a warmer approach to America. In the last months of his presidency, Mr Chirac mused publicly that it might not be so dangerous after all if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb. Mr Sarkozy, by contrast, on a trip to Washington, DC, a year ago while a presidential aspirant, called that prospect “terrifying”, and declared that, to prevent it happening, “all options should be left open”—a deliberate echo of Bush administration language. In August, President Sarkozy spelt out bluntly the stark alternatives that he wanted to avoid: “the Iranian bomb or bombing Iran.”

Mr Kouchner appeared to ratchet up the pressure. In a broadcast interview, he said not only that war against Iran was something to be prepared for, but that French officers were putting together “plans”, though he stressed that these were evidently “not for tomorrow”. This formulation was even bolder than George Bush’s in public. Iran’s state-controlled news agency replied testily that “the new occupant of the Elysée wants to copy the White House”.

What to read into this apparently belligerent French posture? French diplomats, some of them privately taken aback at Mr Kouchner’s comments, insisted that his remarks had been taken out of context and that there was no change in French policy. Military contingency plans, they say, are just a routine exercise in scenario planning. “The point is not that all options are on the table,” says one top diplomat, “but that all the risks are on the table.” Mr Kouchner himself, on a trip to Moscow, designed in part to drum up Russian support for a third UN sanctions-bearing resolution on Iran, also toned down his words. “Everything must be done to avoid war,” he said, arguing that negotiations and sanctions were the priority and that there were “no threats of war, at least not from France.”

In reality, under the hyperactive Mr Sarkozy, the French are palpably impatient with the slow progress in winning support among Security Council members for a new UN resolution. Russia and China are stalling, arguing that they want to wait for Iran to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s watchdog. This is why, while still working on the UN track, the French are also pushing for sanctions outside the UN, through the European Union. The idea would be for EU countries to get their companies, including banks, to stop activities in Iran, rather as America has done. French diplomats say they have not asked French companies to withdraw, but that they are already advising them not to tender for new contracts in Iran.

A European sanctions regime of this sort, which the British also favour, could help on two counts: to persuade America that there is more mileage in diplomacy, while also showing the Iranians that their delaying tactics will not get the world off their backs. The French are not pushing for a military option. What they want at this point is to persuade the public of the danger presented by Iran, to carve out a bit more manoeuvring room for diplomacy, and to make sure the Iranians know that France under President Sarkozy is serious about keeping up the pressure on them.

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