Chirac backtracks after Iran bomb threat brush off
By Francois Murphy and Kerstin Gehmlich
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Jacques Chirac backtracked on Thursday after saying it would not be dangerous for Iran to have a nuclear bomb, a sharp departure from France's position and the stance of close allies.
Chirac made the comments to two U.S. newspapers and a French magazine before summoning the reporters to a second interview the next day at which he said he thought he was speaking off the record and retracted some remarks.
His comments raised questions about where France stands after years spent trying to ensure Iran does not develop atomic weapons.
"What is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb -- having one, maybe a second one a little later, well, that's not very dangerous," Chirac, 74, was quoted as telling the reporters.
If Iran used a nuclear weapon against arch-foe Israel its capital Tehran would be obliterated in retaliation, he said.
The International Herald Tribune and New York Times newspapers said Chirac appeared distracted at times and struggled to remember names and dates when he made the unexpected comments.
Influential French daily Le Monde said his comments represented "a radical turning point," adding: "One asks what credibility the French position will now have."
On Thursday, Chirac's office said the New York Times and IHT had attempted to spark "a shameful scandal" by publishing the comments, which were also printed by French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.
Chirac's health has become a topic for debate since he was secretly admitted to hospital in September 2005 for a blood vessel problem that affected his vision and caused headaches.
Chirac's office said on Thursday:
"France, with the international community, cannot accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran."
France and allies the United States, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, have been pressuring Tehran to abandon sensitive technology that could be used to make atom bombs.
Tehran denies charges that it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying it only wants atomic technology to generate electricity.
Washington and London played down Chirac's remarks.
"It is not a sentiment I share. What is more I understand the president of France doesn't share it any more either," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said.
In the interview Chirac said the main danger from Iran developing a nuclear bomb was that other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would follow suit, not that Tehran would use it.
"Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground," the reporters quoted Chirac as saying.
The following day, the French president backtracked: "I retract it, of course, when I said, One is going to raze Tehran'," the IHT and New York Times quoted him as saying.
Chirac also retracted his prediction that a nuclear Iran could encourage Arab states to build a bomb.
"I retract it, of course, since neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has made the slightest declaration on these subjects, so it is not up to me to make them," he said.
The IHT quoted him as saying: "It is I who was wrong and I do not want to contest it ... I should have paid better attention to what I was saying and understood that perhaps I was on the record."
Chirac's office said the U.S. dailies had acted improperly, even though the French magazine also reported his u-turn.
"It does not surprise us on the part of certain media from the other side of the Atlantic, which will use any opportunity to attack France," his office said.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Sophie Louet in Paris, and Sophie Walker in London)
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