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The tape-recorded, on-the-record interview was conducted under an agreement that it would not be published until Thursday, when Le Nouvel Observateur appears on newsstands.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