Sarkozy tells Iran it risks attack over atomic program

In his first major foreign policy speech since taking office, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that Iran could be attacked militarily if it did not live up to its international obligations to curb its nuclear program.

Addressing the French ambassadorial corps, Sarkozy stressed that such an outcome would be a disaster. He did not say that France would ever participate in military action against Iran or even tacitly support such an approach.

But the mere fact that he raised the specter of the use of force is quite likely to be perceived by Iran as a warning of the consequences of its actions.

Sarkozy praised the current diplomatic initiative by the major world powers, which threatens tougher United Nations-mandated sanctions if Iran does not stop enriching uranium for possible use in a nuclear weapon but holds out the possibility of incentives if Iran complies.

This two-pronged approach, Sarkozy said, “is the only one that can enable us to avoid being faced with a disastrous alternative: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.”

Calling the Iranian nuclear crisis “the most serious weighing on the international order today,” Sarkozy also reiterated his position that a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptable” to France.

Although Sarkozy’s aides said that French policy had not changed, some foreign policy experts were stunned by the blunt, if brief, remarks. “This came out of the blue,” said François Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and author of a forthcoming book on the Iranian nuclear program. “To actually say that if diplomacy fails, the choice will be to accept a nuclear Iran or bomb Iran – this is a diplomatic blockbuster.”

Sarkozy’s speech, an annual ritual outlining French foreign policy goals, came as his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, apologized to the Iraqi government for a remark to Newsweek magazine that the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, should resign.

Maliki had demanded an apology from Kouchner after the foreign minister was quoted on the Newsweek Web site as having said that he had just been speaking on the phone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and had told her, “Listen, he’s got to be replaced.” Adding that “many people” believe Maliki should be replaced, Kouchner said, “I don’t know if that will go through, though, because it seems President Bush is attached to Mr. Maliki. But the government is not functioning.”