Chirac hurries to retract after gaffe on Iran's nuclear threat

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President Jacques Chirac has been forced into an embarrassing retreat after appearing to single-handedly change French policy by saying Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb would not be "very dangerous".

In remarks to journalists on Monday, M. Chirac added that if Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel "it would not have gone off 200 metres into the atmosphere, before Tehran would be razed to the ground".

After realising the impact of his remarks, which he believed to be "off the record", the official transcript of the interview removed the comments and the journalists were summoned back to the Elysée the next day.

"It is I who was wrong and I do not want to contest it," a contrite M. Chirac told them.

Yesterday, the 74-year old President's about-turn was complete when his office issued a statement insisting that France's Iran policy, which has been aligned with that of Britain and Germany, had not changed.

"France, along with the international community, cannot accept the prospect of an Iran equipped with a nuclear weapon," it said, adding that after the clarification, "there should not be a controversy on such a serious subject".

The Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said: "It is not a sentiment I share and from what I understand, the French President doesn't share it any more either." But in France, Le Monde newspaper said the comments had seriously dented the country's credibility. "One asks what credibility the French position will now have."

The French Socialist Party leader, François Hollande, commented in the paper that while M. Chirac had sought to play down the threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, "in fact he caused anxiety".

It is not the first time that the President has appeared to break ranks with Britain and Germany on the sensitive issue of Iran. In August, he appeared to soften the European stance before negotiations in New York.

In Monday's interview, The New York Times said, M. Chirac was "distracted" and "his hands shook slightly". He said: "I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb. Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well that's not very dangerous. But what is dangerous is proliferation."

He said if Iran used a nuclear weapon it would be a self-destructive act.

The issue of whether Iran could be prevented from obtaining a bomb has dominated policy discussions since January last year, when the country resumed enriching uranium after a two-year voluntary freeze.

The decision caused an international crisis as the enrichment process can lead to production of a weapon. Iran says its intentions are peaceful, although Britain, France and the US suspect Iran is using its civil programme as a cover for weapons activity. Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the assumption was that Iran "wants to keep its options open" about developing a bomb.

Apart from its policy implications, M. Chirac's statement did not appear surprising. In recent days, the toughening of US policy against Iranians in Iraq has led to concern that the Bush administration could take military action against Iran, before it obtains a bomb.

"Chirac gave us a moment of honesty," said Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the London-based Centre for Arab-Iranian Studies. "His comment was basically what I believe to be the position of Britain, the United States and much of the West: if Israel is attacked, there will be no hesitation to bring retaliation and destruction on Iran."