ANGOULEME, France Everything must be done to avoid the prospect of war with Iran, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Monday, a day after his foreign minister said Paris should prepare for that possibility.
The United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China have backed two rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment and other sensitive work that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Washington is leading a drive in the Security Council for a third sanctions resolution to punish Iran for enrichment, and White House spokesman Dana Perino said the United States was looking for a diplomatic solution.
"The president believes that our problems with Iran can be solved diplomatically," Perino told reporters.
"As the president has said, any president should never take any option off the table. But we are working through diplomatic means in order to get Iran to comply with its international obligations under the U.N. Security Council."
France, which strongly opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, has taken the lead since Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in calling for further sanctions on Iran and warning of possible military action.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner added to the pressure on Tehran on Sunday, saying France must prepare for the possibility of war with Iran, though it was not an immediate danger.
"Everything must be done to avoid war," Fillon told reporters on a visit to the town of Angouleme in western France.
"France's role is to lead towards a peaceful solution of a situation that would be extremely dangerous for the rest of the world," he said. He added that Kouchner was right to say the situation was dangerous and should be taken seriously.
Kouchner said in an interview on LCI television and RTL radio on Sunday: "We must prepare for the worst," adding: "The worst, sir, is war."
Iran denies it is secretly seeking nuclear weapons, saying it only wants to generate electricity. But it has ignored U.N. demands to suspend enrichment, and Washington has called a September 21 meeting for major powers to discuss further sanctions.
A senior Iranian official accused Kouchner of stirring up a crisis with Iran.
"Using crisis-making words is against France's high historical and cultural position and is against France's civilisation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.
Sarkozy raised the prospect of war last month, saying that a diplomatic push by the world's major powers was the only alternative to "the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran", which he said would be "catastrophic".
APPEAL FOR CALM
France has also said the European Union should consider imposing its own sanctions on Tehran, outside the U.N. framework, and Kouchner said Paris had asked companies including oil giant Total not to bid in Iranian tenders.
In Tehran, the head of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy and security committee said the position of Sarkozy and his government was "hasty and imbalanced" and could damage economic ties. Alaeddin Boroujerdi also demanded an apology.
"Parliament will take stronger actions if the French government continues its illogical positions towards the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said, adding that, faced with such a stance, "there is no reason to have billions of euros of economic ties with France."
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), appealed for calm. "We need to be cool and not hype the Iranian issue," he told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Vienna.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said Berlin refused to even think of war as a possibility. The German government is strongly engaged in diplomacy, and "all other options are not up for discussion," he said.