PARIS (Reuters) - French President Jacques Chirac backtracked on Thursday after saying it would not be dangerous for Iran to have a nuclear bomb, a sudden departure from the position France has long held with key allies.
Chirac made the comments to two U.S. newspapers and a French magazine but called the reporters back for another interview the next day and said he thought he was speaking off the record.
His comments raised doubts about where France stands after years spent jointly spearheading a diplomatic push aimed at ensuring Iran does not develop atomic weapons, and prompted Chirac’s office to say France’s position has not changed.
“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, was quoted as telling the reporters from the International Herald Tribune and New York Times newspapers, and weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.
If Iran used a nuclear weapon against arch-foe Israel its capital Tehran would be obliterated in retaliation, he said.
Chirac’s office said the decision to publish the remarks was an attempt to spark “a shameful scandal”.
France and allies the United States, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, have been pressuring Tehran to abandon 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.
Influential French daily Le Monde said Chirac’s comments represented “a radical turning point”, adding: “One asks what credibility the French position will now have.”
But 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,” Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told Iranian state radio that Chirac’s comments would “only worsen the current unbalanced atmosphere which is the result of the wrong U.S. policies.”
The newspapers said that in the first meeting Chirac, 74 and approaching the end of his second mandate, appeared distracted at times and struggled to remember names and dates, but was more alert in the second interview.
Speculation about Chirac’s health has mounted since he was secretly admitted to hospital in September 2005 for a blood vessel problem that affected his vision and caused headaches.
Chirac said in the first interview the main danger from Iran developing a nuclear bomb was that others, 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 metres (650 ft) 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 withdrew his prediction that a nuclear Iran could encourage Arab states to build a bomb.
“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,” the IHT quoted him as saying.
Chirac’s office said the president had not changed his stance on Iran and said the U.S. dailies had acted improperly, even though the French magazine also reported his U-turn.
“France, with the international community, cannot accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran,” it said in a statement.
“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, Sophie Walker in London, and Tehran bureau