PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday a diplomatic push by the world's powers to rein in Tehran's nuclear programme was the only alternative to "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran".
In his first major foreign policy speech, Sarkozy emphasised his existing foreign policy priorities, such as opposing Turkish membership of the European Union and pushing for a new Mediterranean Union that he hopes will include Ankara.
He also presented some new ideas, such as possibly renewing high-level dialogue with Syria and expanding the Group of Eight industrialised nations to include the biggest developing states.
Sarkozy said a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable and that major powers should continue their policy of incrementally increasing sanctions against Tehran while being open to talks if Iran suspended nuclear activities.
"This initiative is the only one that can enable us to escape an alternative that I say is catastrophic: the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran," he said, adding that it was the worst crisis currently facing the world.
Tehran says it only wants to generate electricity but it has yet to convince the world's most powerful countries that it is not secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.
Sarkozy criticised Russia for its dealings on the international scene. "Russia is imposing its return on the world scene by using its assets, notably oil and gas, with a certain brutality," he said.
"When one is a great power, one should not be brutal."
Energy disputes between Russia and neighbours such as Belarus and Ukraine have raised doubts in Europe about Moscow's reliability as a gas exporter. It supplies Europe, via its neighbours, with around a quarter of its gas demands.
During his election campaign, Sarkozy pledged to put human rights at the centre of his foreign policy, and said he would not balk at raising the issue of Russian rights abuses in its Chechnya region with President Vladimir Putin.
Breaking with the policy of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy said he was prepared to hold high-level talks with Syria if it backed French efforts aimed at ending the political crisis in Lebanon. "If Damascus committed itself to this path, then the conditions for a Franco-Syrian dialogue would be in place."
But he stuck to his predecessor's stance in demanding that a timeline be drawn up for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
Sarkozy said the only option for Turkey's accession talks with the European Union was a form of privileged partnership short of EU membership, and said he wanted a Mediterranean Union to take shape next year.
Turkey has said that project should not be an alternative to Ankara joining the European Union.
Sarkozy criticised Beijing's management of its currency, which he says is too low and gives it an unfair advantage on export markets. He said China and other developing powers Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and India should eventually join the Group of Eight industrialised nations.
"I want the G8 to become the G13," he said.
(Additional reporting by Anna Willard, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Elizabeth Pineau and Kerstin Gehmlich)