Chirac Backtracks on Iran, Says Nuclear-Armed Tehran Unacceptable

France said Thursday that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable, backtracking on published remarks by President Jacques Chirac that Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb would not be "very dangerous."

"France, along with the international community, cannot accept the prospect of an Iran equipped with a nuclear weapon," Chirac's office said in a statement seeking to limit fallout from the French leader's remarks to the International Herald Tribune and two other publications.

"The Iranian nuclear program is opaque and therefore dangerous for the region," the statement added.

It urged Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment, and said that the United Nations would respond to such a move by suspending sanctions and that negotiations with Tehran would resume.

Western powers last year offered a package of incentives to Iran if its suspends its nuclear program.

"The offer remains on the table," the statement said.

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It followed a remarkable morning of damage-control by Chirac's office, which took the unusual step of asking reporters to come over in person for a clarification about his comments that Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb would not be "very dangerous" and that if it used the weapon on Israel, Tehran would be immediately "razed."

Chirac, who made the comments during a Monday interview, called reporters back the next day to try to have his quotes retracted.

The publications said the interview was tape recorded and on the record.

Chirac's initial remarks — which would have marked a big departure from France's official policy of working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons — prompted sharp criticism and protest from experts and the opposition Socialist Party. His office said that foreign governments were also asking for an official clarification.

"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.

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On Monday, Chirac said of Iran and its nuclear program: "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."

Instead, Chirac said, the danger lies in the chances of proliferation or an arms race in the Middle East should Iran build a nuclear bomb. Possessing the weapon would be useless for Iran — whose leader has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" — as using it would mean an instant counterattack, he said.

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

A French official, who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified, confirmed that Chirac had later retracted his original comments on Iran, and said the president had been speaking in a "strategic" or hypothetical way about nuclear deterrence involving Iran — not about "diplomacy."

The official said Chirac had spoken hastily and that his reasoning "was missing a few steps," prompting the president to call back the reporters. He said Chirac's idea was to point out how unthinkable it would be that Iran could even consider using a nuclear weapon.

The U.N. Security Council recently imposed limited sanctions — which Chirac supported — to punish Iran for defying a resolution demanding that it suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fissile material to fuel nuclear reactors or, at purer concentrations, the core of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons, an allegation Tehran denies, insisting it only wants to produce energy. U.S. administration officials have said diplomacy was the focus of their policy on Iran but have never ruled out attacks on Iran.