Bernard Kouchner stressed the urgency of reaching agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme and removing the risk of a pre-emptive strike by Israel.
During an official visit to Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, the minister told The Daily Telegraph that time was running out.
“They [the Israelis] will not tolerate an Iranian bomb. We know that, all of us. So that is an additional risk and that is why we must decrease the tension and solve the problem. Hopefully we are going to stop this race to a confrontation,” said Mr Kouchner.
“There is the time that Israel will offer us before reacting, because Israel will react as soon as they know clearly that there is a threat.”
Six world powers, including France and Britain, met Iranian officials in Geneva on Oct 1. They want the Islamic Republic to obey five United Nations resolutions and stop enriching uranium, a process which could produce the essential material for nuclear weapons.
So far, Iran has adamantly refused. Its officials agreed to another meeting before the end of this month but declined to fix a date.
France, Britain and America have pledged to review their policy at the end of this year. If there is no agreement, they will probably urge the UN to impose more economic sanctions on Iran.
But Mr Kouchner made clear his personal scepticism. He fears that tightening the existing sanctions would simply impoverish ordinary Iranians, weaken the opposition and fail to influence the regime.
“Certainly, the upper people in the Iranian government, they will not suffer from sanctions. But the people of the bazaar and the people on the street, the women and the youngsters, they will certainly suffer from that,” said Mr Kouchner.
“So this is a problem. It is not a discovery. I have witnessed sanctions all over the world and it’s always targeting the poor people more than the rich people.”
Mr Kouchner said the priority was still “dialogue”. More sanctions might become necessary “in the coming months”, but he would be reluctant to impose them.
“We are not looking for sanctions and as I said my personal experience is not to look for sanctions targeted on people. There is an opposition, people are demonstrating, very courageously they were in the streets. Why are we targeting them? I don’t know. We are not for the time being looking for sanctions.”
Iran has blamed Britain for the mass protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election in June. Mr Kouchner said these accusations were designed to divide the West.
“They are targeting the Brits and all the time they are trying to separate the French and the Brits. We cannot fall for such a simple tactic,” he said.
Iran has not given a clear answer to a proposal that would allow the renewal of a civilian reactor in Tehran. The idea is that Iran would export about 80 per cent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and then France for processing into new fuel rods.
Iran first said “yes” in principle, but declined to agree any practicalities and ignored a deadline of last Friday set by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tehran now promises a reply on Wednesday.
White House officials have said that a rejection of what they called a “bona fide” offer would signal that Iran had no intention of pursuing a negotiated settlement. There is growing pessimism that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad no longer considers the proposed deal “in a favourable light”, as Iranian negotiators suggested last week, and his regime is seeking to test the mettle of President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, IAEA inspectors visited a previously undeclared nuclear plant outside the holy city of Qom on Sunday. Iran had kept this enrichment facility secret until America, Britain and France disclosed its existence last month.
The inspection of the facility, likely to last three days, is expected to be one of the most intrusive ever mounted in Iran, despite insistence in Tehran that the IAEA mission is purely “routine”.
The monitors are expected to demand to see engineering drawings of the plant and to seek permission to interview scientists, engineers and architects involved with the site. Iran has denied similar requests in the past, but is under much greater pressure now after having been caught out in an apparent attempt to cover up the existence of the Qom plant.
The inspectors will also ask Iranian officials whether there are other hidden plants that feed the Qom facility with nuclear material.