The Kouchner Gambit

One question that has come up repeatedly during my first day here in Prague-which included a nearly two hour session with key members of Parliament's foreign affairs committee and a conversation on foreign policy issues broadcast by CT24, Czech television's news channel, is what to make of Bernard Kouchner's statements on Iran and missile defense.

First, he warns that diplomacy may not work in putting a stop to Iran's nuclear ambitions and that the West may need to be prepared to use force. Then, he argues that a proposed missile defense system for Europe that is meant to serve, in theory, as a safety net to lessen the threat from Iran that he has just focused so much attention on is but a U.S. provocation against Russia.

So what to make of it?

I proposed that France may be trying to insert itself as the "indispensable mediator" between Russia and the United States, reaching out to Russia in the name of a larger European security project but also emphasizing to Washington that France remains a key component of the Euro-Atlantic community. The Bush Administration was certainly pleased with Kouchner's remarks on Iran, but President Putin also had reason to be satisfied with Kouchner's approach, especially since the second session of the Russo-American consultations aimed to find a common position on missile defense issues has ended in deadlock.

Is France also trying to send signals-first to Tehran that its strategy of waiting out the clock on the Bush Administration to January 2009 is risky, and to other European states and Russia that if they don't begin to develop a more credible diplomatic "stick" then the military option returns to the table? Are Kouchner's comments in Moscow meant to convey in no uncertain terms to Washington that keeping pressure on Iran is the goal, not trying to develop a possible hedge against Russia using missile defense?

Nicolas Sarkozy has made clear that he considers himself a friend of the United States but not a blind follower. If France can broker arrangements on Iran, Kosovo and missile defense that are workable compromises between U.S. and Russian positions, how will the administration react? The Czechs are certainly interested in this question, as I assume other Europeans are too.

For more commentary on international relations, see The Washington Realist, Nick Gvosdev's blog.