(photo credit: AP)
As France's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner can be surprisingly undiplomatic. Having apologized to Iraq's prime minister for saying he should be replaced, the outspoken former humanitarian crusader is now under fire for raising the possibility of war with Iran.
Kouchner's blunt pronouncements are not just the faltering first steps of a minister finding his feet in a complex and scrutinized new job. They also show how France, under Kouchner's boss President Nicolas Sarkozy, is inching closer to the United States, repairing ties badly strained under former French President Jacques Chirac.
Sarkozy's shift is not without critics. Some fear that France is surrendering its diplomatic independence and could be sucked into a US-led conflict with Iran. Francois Bayrou, among the candidates that Sarkozy beat to win the presidency in May, said that he fears that France is aligning itself "with the toughest of the tough in the American administration."
U.S.-skeptic French voters cannot say they were not warned. As a presidential candidate, Sarkozy made no secret of his admiration for the United States and his desire for closer relations. In power, he has wasted no time - meeting with US President George W. Bush at his family home this summer and sending Kouchner to Iraq, a country that French foreign ministers had steered clear of after Chirac fell out with Bush over the US-led war there.
France's calls now for further sanctions to punish Iran for persisting with its nuclear program also make good on campaign promises from Sarkozy. And unlike Chirac, who was adamant that international action go through the United Nations, France is preparing to move without UN backing if necessary.
French officials say the European Union has begun considering a draft text on a parallel track of economic sanctions by the 27-member bloc that would target Iranian access to European credit, insurance and financial services.
The French sense of urgency on Iran has been especially palpable since Bush entertained Sarkozy at his Kennebunkport family estate in August. Two weeks after that meeting, Sarkozy warned that the world risks "a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb, or the bombing of Iran" if diplomacy and sanctions fail.
Kouchner, to the alarm of some of France's partners in Europe, reinforced that warning this weekend by saying the international community should prepare for the possibility of war in the event that Iran obtains atomic weapons.
Kouchner may simply have let his tongue run away from him. It wouldn't be the first time. And on Tuesday, in Moscow for talks, he backtracked somewhat, saying: "Everything must be done to avoid war. It's necessary to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate."
But he could also have been sending a message both to Iran and to Russia, which has pushed for a more go-slow approach during the Iran crisis, that time is running out. He did not seem to win over his audience: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Tuesday against the use of force in Iran and against unilateral sanctions.
Francois Nicoullaud, who was France's ambassador to Tehran from 2001-2005, said he fears that going outside the UN framework with new sanctions could, if they fail, set France on a path that might ultimately finish in conflict, like the non-UN-authorized Iraq war.
"One shouldn't forget that the Iranians have lived with American sanctions for many years," he said. "My great concern is that they are very resistant to sanctions, they are inured to them, they've grown a thick skin."