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The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) late last week on the Iranian nuclear program and Tehran's "increased cooperation" with the agency does not alter the seriousness with which France views the crisis or its stance on a military strike against Iran. This according to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who began a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority yesterday.

In an interview with Haaretz, Kouchner, who along with President Nicolas Sarkozy is leading the European hard-liners against Iran, described the crisis over Iran's nuclear program "as extremely serious," adding that France "will never compromise on Israel's security."

Even though in Tehran the IAEA's report was described as a "political victory" that may prevent the intensifying of international sanctions, Kouchner says that "for now Iran persists in not meeting its international commitments."

Making an indirect reference to the agency's report, which concluded that Iran is continuing its uranium-enrichment efforts, the French foreign minister says that "in accordance with [United Nations Security Council] Resolution 1747, we have no choice but to make another decision at the Security Council [on imposing new sanctions]."

When asked if in light of the Russian and Chinese opposition, a likelihood exists of forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear project without having to use force, Kouchner said: "We have proposed to our European partners to adopt measures against Iran also within the European Union framework, in order to let Iran understand that it cannot continue with its policy of creating faits accomplis."

Will France support the use of force by the United States or Israel? Will France be willing to participate in an attack on Iran? Kouchner did not respond directly to the questions but used language that suggests that for France, all options, including that of military force, are open:

"I intend to continue with great determination along this path [of pressuring Iran] which is the only way to bring about an agreed solution, the only one that will prevent us from having, one day, to be faced with a dilemma of 'an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran.'"

Meanwhile, Russia on Friday gave the clearest indication yet that it was ready to send uranium to fuel Iran's first atomic power station, upping the stakes in a diplomatic crisis surrounding Tehran's nuclear program.

As a result of these reports, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak will meet senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem.

Kislyak is in charge of the Iranian portfolio at the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russia's state-run nuclear fuel producer said inspectors from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog would later this month start sealing nuclear fuel bound for the Bushehr plant, a major step to shipping the fuel to the Bushehr plant in Iran.

Russia has so far given no concrete date for when it will send the nuclear fuel to Bushehr, but says it would be sent six months before the plant's repeatedly delayed start-up.

According to Russian forecasts, the reactor at the plant could be started up in 2008 and nuclear fuel would have to arrive at the plant six months before that.

Iran's ambassador to Russia on Friday said nuclear fuel deliveries to the Islamic Republic were a "matter of principle", and hoped Moscow would send them soon.

"We hope that promises we have been receiving from official Russian representatives on such an important issue ... will soon be carried out and realized," Ambassador Gholamreza Ansari said.

"Russia has formally informed (the IAEA) that it is ready for the Bushehr nuclear fuel in Russia to be checked and sealed on Nov. 26," IRNA quoted Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, as saying.

Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said yesterday that Iran was ready to respond if attacked, but played down the prospect of war with the United States.

Ahmadinejad was speaking during a visit to Bahrain which came amid mounting concerns in the Gulf that the United States could launch military action against Iran, although Washington says it is committed to a diplomatic solution to a crisis over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.