By ELAINE SCIOLINO
PARIS, Aug. 27 — In his first major foreign policy speech as president, Nicolas Sarkozy of France said Monday that Iran could be attacked militarily if it did not live up to its international obligations to curb its nuclear program.
Addressing France’s ambassadorial corps, Mr. Sarkozy stressed that such an outcome would be a disaster. He did not say France would ever participate in military action against Iran or even tacitly support such an approach.
But the mere fact that he raised the specter of the use of force is likely to be perceived both by Iran as a warning of the consequences if it continues its course of action, and by the Bush administration as acceptance of its line that no option, including the use of force, can be excluded.
Mr. Sarkozy praised the current diplomatic initiative by the world’s powers, a two-pronged approach that threatens tougher United Nations-mandated sanctions if Iran does not stop enriching uranium for possible use in a nuclear weapon, but holds out the possibility of incentives if Iran complies.
That approach, he said, “is the only one that can enable us to avoid being faced with an alternative that I call catastrophic: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.”
Calling the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program “the most serious weighing on the international order today,” Mr. Sarkozy also reiterated his position that a nuclear-armed Iran was “unacceptable” for France.
Although Mr. Sarkozy’s aides said French policy had not changed, some foreign policy experts were stunned by his blunt, if brief, remarks.
“This came out of the blue,” said François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and author of a coming book on Iran’s nuclear program. “To actually say that if diplomacy fails the choice will be to accept a nuclear Iran or bomb Iran, this is a diplomatic blockbuster.”
Mr. Sarkozy’s speech, an annual ritual outlining France’s foreign policy goals, came as a new poll indicated that he had extraordinarily high approval ratings more than three months into his presidency.
According to a TNS-Sofres telephone poll of 1,000 people published Monday in Le Figaro, 71 percent say they are satisfied with Mr. Sarkozy’s performance. A number of other polls put his approval rating higher than 60 percent.
But his debut before his ambassadors was marred by a diplomatic imbroglio involving his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who was forced to apologize to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq for calling for his resignation.
Mr. Maliki had demanded the apology from Mr. Kouchner, who was quoted on Newsweek’s Web site as saying that the Iraqi government was “not functioning” and that he told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by phone, “He’s got to be replaced.”
Mr. Sarkozy made no mention of the diplomatic gaffe. Instead, he went out of his way to repeatedly praise Mr. Kouchner, an outspoken humanitarian activist and former United Nations administrator of Kosovo who left the Socialist Party to join Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative government.
In a subsequent speech to the 180 visiting ambassadors, Mr. Kouchner veered from his prepared remarks to say he had apologized to Mr. Maliki on Monday morning.
But Mr. Kouchner has a reputation for being unable to hide his true feelings. He also suggested in the same sentence that the beleaguered Iraqi prime minister was already on his way out, saying that he “may be leaving us soon.” The audience, made up of ambassadors, other invited guests and journalists, laughed.
Most of Mr. Sarkozy’s speech was devoted to plotting a new, activist course for France’s role in the world, particularly in preventing what he called a confrontation between Islam and the West by working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and crises in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.
Praising his predecessor, he reiterated, “France was — thanks to Jacques Chirac — is and remains hostile” to the American-led war in Iraq. “History proved France right,” he added.
Calling for a concrete deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, he described it as “a nation that is falling apart in a merciless civil war,” where the Sunni-Shiite divide could ignite conflict throughout the Middle East and where terrorists are setting up permanent bases to attack targets around the world.
During a headline-grabbing three-day visit to Iraq last week, Mr. Kouchner offered France’s help in stabilizing the country, including mediating among warring communities, and working with the United Nations to play a bigger role.
Although Mr. Sarkozy praised Mr. Kouchner’s mission and said in his speech that France was prepared to engage with Iraq, he did not make a specific proposal.
Mr. Sarkozy, who is often faulted for being too pro-American, proudly restated France’s friendship with the United States, where he spent a two-week vacation this summer.
In a move that is certain to be welcomed in Washington, he announced that France would send more troops to Afghanistan to train the Afghan Army, despite his statement during the campaign that France would not remain in Afghanistan forever. The Defense Ministry confirmed that France would send 150 additional troops.
But Mr. Sarkozy harshly criticized the Bush administration for going to war against Iraq on its own and for failing to address the global warming crisis adequately.
“It is clear now, and I mean it, that the unilateral use of force leads to failure,” he said of the Iraq crisis. As for the environment, he said the United States “unfortunately is not demonstrating the ‘leadership’ capacity that it claims in other areas.”
“When you make a claim of leadership, you have to assume it in every domain,” he added.
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