ANALYSIS: Chirac's Iran blunder provides glimpse into nuclear Middle East

2nd February 2007, Comments 0 comments

He may have taken back what he said but Jacques Chirac this week nevertheless became the first western head of state to break a taboo by recognising that Iran may become a nuclear-armed power.

He may have taken back what he said but Jacques Chirac this week nevertheless became the first western head of state to break a taboo by recognising that Iran may become a nuclear-armed power.

By sketching out a scenario of Iran armed with a nuclear bomb and staring down Israel, the French president gave the world a glimpse of the new balance of power in the Middle East that western governments may be contemplating.

While such musings are commonplace in think tanks and conferences, they have a different resonance coming from the president of France, which has joined the United States and Europe in asserting that Iran will not be allowed to develop a bomb.

"Jacques Chirac said what many experts are saying in the world, even in the United States -- that a country that has the bomb doesn't use it and applies the rationale of deterrence," former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine commented.

Foreign policy expert Pascal Boniface agreed that Chirac "spoke as an expert and not as a head of state" at a time when the United Nations is seeking to put more pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear activities.

"In the official diplomatic discourse, these are things that are just not said," added Boniface of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies in Paris.

In an interview this week to three publications, Chirac minimised the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, saying that Tehran would have to take into the account the fact that it would be "razed to the ground" if it launched a strike on Israel.

"Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well that's not very dangerous," Chirac said in the interview to the New York Times, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune and the French weekly Nouvel Observateur.

"Where would Iran drop this bomb? On Israel?" he asked. "It would not have gone off 200 metres into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground," Chirac was quoted as saying by the three publications.

The president retracted his comments, admitting that he had erred, and the Elysee issued a formal statement asserting that France's position was unchanged and that it considered a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable.

Le Monde newspaper nevertheless said Chirac's comments signalled a "radical shift" from France's previous stance. "When the international community meets in New York and again threatens Iran, one has to wonder what credibility France will have," it said.

The blunder had an impact in foreign capitals, with the Russian Nezavissimaya Gazeta newspaper declaring that Chirac was "the first western leader to admit that the world cannot stop the Iranian nuclear programme".  

For Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow on non-proliferation at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, the remarks should not be taken as a sign that the West is coming to terms with the idea that Iran will acquire a bomb.

"Governments will certainly be doing contingency planning on Iran if all efforts fail," he said.

"But they are doing their very best to dissuade Iran from reaching that step and they believe that there is time left to do that."

France joined Britain and the United States in 2005 on a high-powered diplomatic effort to convince Tehran to halt its programme of uranium enrichment. Iran says it needed enriched uranium for fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but the West fears it will develop the ingredients necessary to build a bomb.

The European drive failed and experts now see the United States as the leading player in the effort to persuade Iran to give up its suspected nuclear ambitions.

Iran expert Georges Le Guelte dismissed Chirac's comments as "totally incoherent", saying that "he gives the impression of someone who just doesn't know what to do" about Iran.

"If Chirac is saying 'let's allow Iran to acquire the bomb' it's a catastrophic and disastrous solution," said Le Guelte.

Meanwhile, diplomats this week revealed that Iran had begun construction of 3,000 centrifuges at its main nuclear facility in the central town of Natanz in what would mark an escalation in its drive for nuclear capabilities.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, Jacques Chirac, Iran, Nuclear weapon

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