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Israeli officials were bewildered by French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy's comment Monday that Iran plays a stabilizing role in the region, but said this should be seen in the wider context of a French-US tug-of-war regarding whether Iran or Syria is the ultimate bad guy in the region.
Douste-Blazy, who was in Beirut Monday, said, "In the region there is of course a country such as Iran - a great country, a great people and a great civilization which is respected and which plays a stabilizing role in the region."
One senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said Douste-Blazy's comments should earn him the "Hugo prize for science fiction. What planet is he on? It's not Planet Earth if he thinks Iran is a stabilizing force."
Nevertheless, the comment, according to sources in Jerusalem, reflects a school of thought in Paris that believes that if Iran is given a "little rope" it could rein in Hizbullah.
This is in stark opposition to a school of thought that is gaining some traction in the US, which posits that the US should make some overtures to Syria to try to take it out of Iran's orbit, and as a result bring Hizbullah down a notch.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gave voice to this thinking in a column last week, filed from Damascus.
"Can we get the Syrians on board? Can we split Damascus from Teheran?" Friedman asked. "My conversations here suggest it would be very hard, but worth a shot. It is the most important strategic play we could make, because Syria is the bridge between Iran and Hizbullah."
According to diplomatic officials in Jerusalem, this way of thinking is anathema to the French, whose President Jacques Chirac has - because of the assassination of his friend Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister - developed a deep antipathy to the Syrian regime and its president Bashar Assad.
Chirac's policy, according to officials in Jerusalem, "can be summed up in one phrase: Anybody but Assad." It is for this reason, the officials said, that the French foreign minister decided to praise Teheran while in Beirut.