French President Jacques Chirac's comments that one or two nuclear weapons in Iran's hands would not pose a big danger have drawn harsh condemnations over the past two weeks not only in Jerusalem, but in Paris as well. The French Foreign Ministry rushed to correct Chirac's statement, and the French ambassador to Israel, Jean-Michel Casa, called the Iranian nuclear program a threat to world peace.
In his first interview with the Israeli press, Casa had strong words for Tehran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons. "France has a unified and clear position, which has been restated lately," he told Haaretz. "As far as we are concerned, the possibility of Iran having a bomb is completely unacceptable. That is a threat to the world and not just to Israel and the region."
When asked to clarify his president's statement, Casa shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "There was a misunderstanding, and President Chirac's comments were clarified or corrected. I think our position is completely clear - we will absolutely not accept a situation in which Iran becomes a nuclear power."
In recent months, France has taken on a significant role in formulating the international position on Iran's nuclear program. Despite American calls for tougher sanctions on Iran, Casa said that existing sanctions have delayed the nuclear program and harmed Tehran's image internationally. Thus, he said, the world must continue to apply pressure.
"We have faith in diplomacy, and believe a united international community can convince Iran to retreat, whether through diplomacy or through sanctions," Casa said. "We also understand that there are those who still want to discuss the military option, to show Iran that the world is determined on this issue and isn't just making statements."
"We will to assist Iran's civilian nuclear program under tight international supervision, on condition that they abandon their uranium enrichment program and any military program," he added.
Reading between the lines, it is difficult not to see criticism of the United States. Paris expressed stark opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Now, with Iraq essentially in the midst of a civil war, French spokesmen are saying "we told you so."
The French Foreign Ministry is currently strongly opposed to attacking Iran. In his interview with Haaretz, Casa hinted that if not for the war in Iraq, the international effort against Iran's nuclear program would be much simpler. "Already at that time, the real problem was Iran," the ambassador said. "The Iraq adventure weakened the American position in the international arena. They lost a lot of time in Iraq, instead of dealing with the important issue, which is a nuclear Iran. I think we should learn from the Iraq experience before we embark on dangerous adventures."
Other than the Iranian issue, Casa must deal with the results of the second Lebanon war ("by enforcing all the elements of the United Nations resolution, we can avoid another war") and the future of the boycott against the Palestinian Authority ("the unity government is a first step in the right direction, but we want to see how things develop").
The 49-year-old Casa is no stranger to the Middle East. Although he took over as ambassador to Israel only three months ago, he served as ambassador to Jordan starting in 2002 and took frequent weekend trips to Israel. And while Chirac's 12 years in office saw many periods of tension between Israel and France, Paris has recently been making an effort to improve relations - by cooperating with the U.S. to end the war in Lebanon, taking a hard line against Iran and sponsoring last summer's "French season" in Israel.
Casa stressed that his primary mission will be to improve bilateral relations between the countries following the elections in France in two months' time - even if "disagreements pop up from time to time."
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