By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - France's foreign minister criticized Iran's regional ambitions, saying Paris could not accept Tehran's military expansion to the Mediterranean, and accused Russia of failing to use its influence to push U.N.-led Syrian peace talks and curb violence.
Speaking in an interview with France 2 television to be broadcast later on Tuesday as part of a documentary on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was time for Moscow and Tehran to work with the U.N. Security Council to end the six-year-old conflict in Syria.
"The Iranian presence and the desire to make an axis from the Mediterranean to Tehran, (I say) no!" Le Drian said in the interview. "There is a Syria that needs to exist."
Many Arab leaders argue that by fighting Islamic State and supporting Assad militarily, Iran is projecting its power across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, creating an arc of regional influence stretching from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean.
Tensions between Iran and France have increased in recent weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron said that Tehran should be less aggressive in the region and clarify its ballistic missile program.
Le Drian also denounced Tehran's "hegemonic temptations" during a visit to Saudi Arabia last month.
Iran's foreign minister on Monday urged European countries not to be influenced by U.S. President Donald Trump's confrontational policy towards Tehran.
Under Macron's instruction, Le Drian has sought not take sides in the Middle East and attempted to improve ties with Russia after the previous French administration's relationship with Moscow suffered especially over Syria, where Russia and Iran are staunch allies of Assad.
In Syria "Iran brings its militias, supports (heavily-armed Lebanese Shi'ite group) Hezbollah," Le Drian said. "Syria must become a sovereign state again and that means (a country) independent of the pressure and presence of other countries."
With Assad by his side Russian President Vladimir Putin flew into Syria on Monday and ordered "a significant part" of Moscow's military contingent there to start withdrawing. The two met last week in the Russian city of Sochi.
"If you can summon Assad to Sochi, you can also tell him to stop (bombing) and allow aid to everyone," he said referring to the besieged rebel-held region of Eastern Ghouta.
Paris has nuanced its approach to U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva, saying that Assad's departure from power should not be a pre-condition for negotiations. However, Le Drian made it clear that Russia was not doing enough.
"The main actors in this affair are Russia and Iran. They need to use their weight to lead a political solution with the other members of the Security Council," Le Drian said, repeating that Assad was not the solution.
"He is barbaric, but he is there, so we have to a start the process that leads to a (new) constitution and elections under the U.N." he said. "I struggle to imagine that populations who have suffered so much consider him part of the solution."
(Reporting by John Irish, Editing by William Maclean)