Chirac plays down nuclear-Iran threat, then changes mind

French President Jacques Chirac was scrambling Thursday to try and undo the damage that may have been caused by his statement to a group of reporters that a nuclear-armed Iran was not really dangerous because if it ever did attack Israel, "Tehran would be razed to the ground" immediately.

The International Herald Tribune reports that Mr. Chirac made the initial statement Monday to reporters from the Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and Le Nouvel Observateur. The interview was not published until today because of an agreement with the French paper, which only publishes on Thursdays.

"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 mastering nuclear-generated electricity, the danger does not lie in the bomb it will have, and which will be of no use to it."

Chirac went on to state that 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?" Chirac asked. "It would not have gone off 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground."

The larger issue, he said, is that if Iran has a nuclear bomb that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan may want one as well.

The Associated Press reports that Chirac's office contacted the reporters Tuesday and told them that he thought he had been speaking off the record and that he wanted to withdraw his remarks. But the reporters used them in their stories regardless.

"I should rather have paid attention to what I was saying and understood that perhaps I was on the record," Chirac said in the second interview on Tuesday, according to transcripts that the three publications posted on their Web sites.

AP also reports that Chirac denied having made any comments about Israel being attacked in the first interview: "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."

The International Herald Tribune writes that it is not unusual for French officials to try and have their remarks changed before the publication of an article. But what is unclear, the paper continues, is which position Chirac really holds. Some French officials have said that in the past year, Chirac has expressed the sentiment that a nuclear-armed Iran may be inevitable.

The French president's comments have created another problem for the Bush administration, which many observers and diplomats believe is set on a course for confrontation with Iran in the same way it went after Iraq. Monday, the same day Chirac's comments were published, Russia announced that it supported the idea of a "time out" between Iran and the West, which CNN reports was first proposed by Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency last week during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

ElBaradei told CNN International that the timeout would mean Iran would freeze its nuclear program, while the United Nations would temporarily suspend the sanctions package against Iran that took effect last month. ...

"North Korea is a good example. For years, things were not moving. Only when the U.S. talked directly with the North Koreans, we had a positive report. If we are able to talk to the North Koreans, we ought to be able to talk to the Iranians."

AP reports that Russia's Foreign Ministry said, "We believe the initiative put forward by the IAEA head ... deserves close attention." And the head of Russia's Security Council said Tuesday he hopes Iran will still work with the IAEA to resolve the concerns of the international community, RIA Novosti reported.

But Reuters reports that the United States has already largely dismissed ElBaradei's "timeout" suggestion as "well-meaning but superfluous," as the UN sanctions already require Iran to halt its nuclear operations.

"That is very clear and not subject to reinterpretation," said Alejandro Wolff, acting US ambassador to the United Nations, alluding to ElBaradei's idea, which was floated at the high-profile World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week.

But Reuters also reports that Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that there is still time for diplomacy to solve the issue, despite the bellicose words coming from the US and Iran.

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