With his remarks Sunday that the world should prepare for war against Iran, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner ratcheted up the rhetoric in the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program. Now he has sought to explain the remarks and said he had intended to deliver a message of peace.
"I do not want it to be said that I am a warmonger!" he told the newspaper Le Monde Tuesday as he flew to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. "My message was a message of peace, of seriousness and of determination. ... The worst situation would be war. To avoid that, the French attitude is to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate, without fear of being rebuffed, and to work with our European friends on credible sanctions."
However, in an interview with a Russian newspaper he called again for harder sanctions against Iran. "We demand an answer as to why the Iranians want to engage in enriching uranium," he said in an interview published Tuesday in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta . He called the proliferation of nuclear weapons "one of the greatest dangers at the beginning of the 21st century."
Speaking on RTL radio Sunday, Kouchner warned that the world should prepare for war if Iran succeeds in obtaining nuclear weapons. "We must prepare for the worst," he said, adding, "The worst is war." Nevertheless, he said he did not believe war was imminent. He added that Paris and Berlin were preparing possible European Union economic sanctions against Tehran, which would be separate from United Nations sanctions.
Iran insists its atomic activities are entirely peaceful and are aimed only at producing energy, but many Western countries suspect that the Iranian government is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
The United States has refused to rule out the possibility of force against Iran if it continues with its nuclear program. However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday the US administration is currently committed to using diplomatic and economic means to counter the potential nuclear threat from Iran. The five permanent Security Council members -- the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany are due to meet in Washington on Sept. 21 to discuss a new draft UN resolution on sanctions against Iran.
'Learn the Lesson' of Iraq
Kouchner's remarks elicited a forceful reaction from the UN's chief nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, on Monday. "I would not talk about any use of force," he said, speaking outside an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna. Any use of force would have to be authorized by the UN Security Council, he said. "There are rules on how to use force, and I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons," he said, in a reference to the US's argument that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was necessary because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
"I do not believe at this stage that we are facing a clear and present danger that requires we go beyond diplomacy," ElBaradei said. "We need not to hype the issue." In a recent SPIEGEL interview, ElBaradei warned that the next few months would be crucial for deciding if the Iran dispute moves "in the direction of escalation or in the direction of a peaceful solution."
On Monday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon downplayed Kouchner's remarks, saying "everything must be done to avoid war." France's role "is to lead the way to a peaceful solution," he said. However, he also called for "the most severe sanctions possible" if the Iranian government continues with its nuclear program.
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema also attempted Monday to downplay talk of the use of force. "Before talking about war, we have to give political and diplomatic initiatives necessary time," D'Alema said.
The Iranian reaction to Kouchner's hawkish remarks was predictably disparaging. Iranian Vice President Reza Aghazadeh accused certain unspecified countries of forcing the international community on to the "unjustified, illegal, deceptive and misleading path ... by imposing restrictions and sanctions." He said Iran would "never give up its inalienable and legal right in benefiting from peaceful nuclear technology."
Iranian state media Monday accused the French government of copying the US's hardline approach. "The occupants of the Élysée have become translators of the White House policies in Europe and have adopted a tone that is even harder, even more inflammatory and more illogical than that of Washington," Iran's state-run IRNA news agency wrote in an online editorial Monday.
Meanwhile, a recently retired commander of US forces in the Middle East said Monday the world could live with a nuclear-armed government in Tehran. "There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," said John Abizaid, a retired Army general who previously headed the US Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East. "Iran is not a suicide nation," he said. "They may have some people in charge that don't appear to be rational, but I doubt that the Iranians intend to attack us with a nuclear weapon. ... I believe that we have the power to deter Iran, should it become nuclear."
The heightened rhetoric over Iran helped push oil prices to a record high in after-hours trade on Monday evening. Prices breached the $81-a-barrel mark for the first time.