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French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's statement Sunday that the world should prepare for war over Iran's disputed nuclear program has increased the fraught tensions with Tehran and highlighted divisions in the West.
Iran has responded to the French statements by accusing the West of pursuing conflict
Interviewed on French television about Iran late Sunday, Kouchner said, "We must prepare for the worst." Asked what the worst was, he replied, "It is war."
Kouchner said there was "no greater crisis today" than that over Tehran's developing nuclear program.
"We will not accept that this (nuclear) bomb will be built," he declared.
"We must negotiate right to the end" with Iran, Kouchner added, but underlined that if Tehran possessed an atomic weapon, it would represent "a real danger for the whole world."
Room for negotiation remains
Kouchner warned the world must be prepared for war
In a bid to play down the controversy, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Monday, Sept. 17, that tensions with Iran were "extreme" but insisted there was still room for diplomacy in the nuclear stand-off.
"Everything must be done to avoid war," Fillon told reporters. "The Iranians must understand that tension has reached an extreme point."
While saying that Kouchner was right to call the situation with Iran dangerous, Fillon added that a confrontation was "the last option that any political leader would want."
The French foreign minister called on the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Tehran outside of those imposed by the United Nations.
"These would be European sanctions that each country, individually, must put in place with its own banking, commercial and industrial system," Kouchner said.
France takes a hard line
Fillon said tensions with Iran were now "extreme"
The French foreign minister's statement follows what appears to be a new hard line from France on dealing with Iran.
As part of the EU troika along with Germany and Britain, France led Europe's diplomatic efforts to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program, which some believe is being used in the development of nuclear weapons. While the troika suffered a number of setbacks at the negotiating table, it was seen as the main diplomatic front in averting conflict with Iran.
However, since President Nicolas Sarkozy's election victory in May, France has been keen to flex its muscles. Sarkozy himself warned in an Aug. 27 speech that the Iranian nuclear crisis presented the world with "a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."
Iran: West always chooses confrontation
Aghazadeh condemned France's behavior
Iran responded with outrage to Kouchner's statement.
"It seems that the French foreign minister has forgotten the policy of the European Union," foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in a statement. "The use of such words creates tensions and is contrary to the cultural history and civilization of France."
Iranian Vice-President Reza Aghazadeh, who is also the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Western countries "have always chosen the path of confrontation instead of the path of understanding and cordial relations."
"The great nation of Iran has recorded your discriminatory behavior and performance in its memory and will not forget," he added.
Germany will continue to support France
France's European partners appeared divided over the French statement.
Germany said Monday that it would continue to work closely with France and its other allies to avert the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
European governments want to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons
The French government was correct in its assessment that "there are all the elements of a very serious obligation on the international community and that we must do everything possible to ensure that Iran does not become nuclear armed," government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said in Berlin.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jäger added that he did not regard Kouchner's statements as a "threat of war."
Germany and France were currently cooperating on a third resolution to be placed before the UN Security Council on applying additional sanctions to Iran to compel it to halt its nuclear weapons program, he said.
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said that the Netherlands would support EU sanctions if the UN Security Council failed to agree on new measures but would not be drawn on any talk of military intervention.
"The first effort should be to convince the Security Council to apply more sanctions," Verhagen said. "But when the Security Council doesn't agree, I am willing to apply European Union sanctions in combination with the United States sanctions."
IAEA chief warns of Iraq lessons
IAEA's ElBaradei spoke of the tragedy of Iraq
IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei urged countries to refrain from talking about an escalation of the Iran nuclear crisis.
"We need always to remember that use of force could only be resorted to when ... every other option has been exhausted. I don't think we are at all there," ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna. "There is no clear and present danger from Iran.
"There are rules on how to use force, and I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 70,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons," he concluded.