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Chirac Strays From Assailing a Nuclear Iran

New York Times | February 1, 2007
ELAINE SCIOLINO and KATRIN BENNHOLD

PARIS, Jan. 31 — President Jacques Chirac said this week that if Iran had one or two nuclear weapons, it would not pose a big danger, and that if Iran were to launch a nuclear weapon against a country like Israel, it would lead to the immediate destruction of Tehran.

The remarks, made in an interview on Monday with The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly magazine, were vastly different from stated French policy and what Mr. Chirac has often said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Chirac summoned the same journalists back to Élysée Palace to retract many of his remarks.

Mr. Chirac said repeatedly during the second interview that he had spoken casually and quickly the day before because he believed he had been talking about Iran off the record.

“I should rather have paid attention to what I was saying and understood that perhaps I was on the record,” he said.

The tape-recorded, on-the-record interview was conducted under an agreement that it would not be published until Thursday, when Le Nouvel Observateur appears on newsstands.

On Monday, Mr. Chirac began by describing as “very dangerous” Iran’s refusal to stop producing enriched uranium, which can be used to produce electricity or to make nuclear weapons. Then he made his remarks about a nuclear-armed Iran.

“I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb,” he said. “Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that’s not very dangerous.

“But what is very dangerous is proliferation. This means that if Iran continues in the direction it has taken and totally masters nuclear-generated electricity, the danger does not lie in the bomb it will have, and which will be of no use to it.”

Mr. Chirac said it would be an act of self-destruction for Iran to use a nuclear weapon against another country.

“Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel?” Mr. Chirac asked. “It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”

It was unclear whether Mr. Chirac’s initial remarks reflected what he truly believes. If so, it suggests a growing divide with American policy, which places the highest priority on stopping Iran from gaining the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

Mr. Chirac has privately expressed the view occasionally in the past year that a nuclear-armed Iran might be inevitable and that it could try to sell the technology to other countries. But publicly the policy has been very different. In fact, Élysée Palace prepared a heavily edited 19-page transcript of the Monday interview that excluded Mr. Chirac’s assessment of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The transcript even inserted a line that Mr. Chirac had not said that read, “I do not see what type of scenario could justify Iran’s recourse to an atomic bomb.”

There are divisions within the French government — and between Europe and the United States — about how much Iran should be punished for behavior that the outside world might not be able to change. Some French officials worry that the more aggressive course of action by the United States toward Iran will lead to a confrontation like the Iraq war, which France opposed.

In noting the sanctions against Iran that were imposed last month by the Security Council, Mr. Chirac warned Tuesday that escalation of the conflict by both sides was unwise. “Of course we can go further and further, or higher and higher up the scale in the reactions from both sides,” he said. “This is certainly not our thinking nor our intention.”

In the Monday interview, Mr. Chirac argued that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon was less important than the arms race that would ensue.

“It is really very tempting for other countries in the region that have large financial resources to say: ‘Well, we too are going to do that; we’re going to help others do it,’ ” he said. “Why wouldn’t Saudi Arabia do it? Why wouldn’t it help Egypt to do so as well? That is the real danger.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Chirac had planned to send his foreign minister to Iran to help resolve the crisis in Lebanon. The venture collapsed after Saudi Arabia and Egypt opposed the trip and members of his own government said it would fail.

Mr. Chirac, who is 74 and months away from ending his second term as president, suffered a neurological episode in 2005 and is said by French officials to have become much less precise in conversation.

Mr. Chirac spent much of the second interview refining his remarks of the previous day.

He retracted, for example, his comment that Tehran would be destroyed if Iran launched a nuclear weapon. “I retract it, of course, when I said, ‘One is going to raze Tehran,’ ” he said.

He added that any number of third countries would stop an Iranian bomb from ever reaching its target. “It is obvious that this bomb, at the moment it was launched, obviously would be destroyed immediately,” Mr. Chirac said. “We have the means — several countries have the means to destroy a bomb.”

Mr. Chirac also retracted his prediction that a nuclear Iran could encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to follow suit.

“I drifted — because I thought we were off the record — to say that, for example, Saudi Arabia or Egypt could be tempted to follow this example,” he said. “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.”

As for his suggestion in the first interview that Israel could be a target of an Iranian attack and could retaliate, Mr. Chirac said: “I don’t think I spoke about Israel yesterday. Maybe I did so but I don’t think so. I have no recollection of that.”

There were other clarifications. In the initial interview, for example, Mr. Chirac referred to the Iranian Islamic Republic as “a bit fragile.” In the subsequent interview, he called Iran “a great country” with a “very old culture” that “has an important role to play in the region” as a force for stability.

Mr. Chirac’s initial comments contradicted long-held French policy, which holds that Iran must not go nuclear. The thinking is that a nuclear-armed Iran would give Iran the ability to project power throughout the region and threaten its neighbors — as well as encourage others in the region to seek the bomb.

Under Mr. Chirac’s presidency, France has joined the United States and other countries in moving to punish Iran for refusing to stop enriching uranium, as demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council.

Iran insists that the purpose of its uranium enrichment program is to produce energy; France, along with many other countries, including the United States, is convinced that the program is part of a nuclear weapons project.

The purpose of the initial interview was for Mr. Chirac to talk about climate change and an international conference in Paris later this week that parallels a United Nations conference on the global environment.

The question about Iran followed a comment by Mr. Chirac on the importance of developing nuclear energy programs that are transparent, safe and secure.

In the midst of his initial remarks on Iran, Mr. Chirac’s spokesman passed him a handwritten note, which Mr. Chirac read aloud. “Yes, he’s telling me that we have to go back to the environment,” Mr. Chirac said. He then continued a discussion of Shiite Muslims, who are by far the majority in Iran but a minority in the Muslim world.

“Shiites do not have the reaction of the Sunnis or of Europeans,” said Mr. Chirac, who over the years in private meetings has expressed distrust of Shiite Muslims.

The president had a different demeanor during the two encounters.

In the first interview, which took place in the late morning, he appeared distracted at times, grasping for names and dates and relying on advisers to fill in the blanks. His hands shook slightly. When he spoke about climate change, he read from prepared talking points printed in large letters and highlighted in yellow and pink.

By contrast, in the second interview, which came just after lunch, he appeared both confident and comfortable with the subject matter.

The attempt by Élysée Palace to change the president’s remarks in a formal text is not unusual. It is a long-held tradition in French journalism for interview subjects — from the president to business and cultural figures — to be given the opportunity to edit the texts of question-and-answer interviews before publication.

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