- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

PARIS — Did French President Jacques Chirac misspeak? Is he, at age 74 and in the waning months of his second and likely last term, losing his political touch, even his mental vigor? Or did he simply voice a fear that a nuclear-armed Iran may be a foregone conclusion?

An astounded world asked those questions after the French leader asserted it would not be “very dangerous” if Iran had one or two nuclear weapons, and that its capital, Tehran, would be “razed” if it used them on Israel — assertions that forced Mr. Chirac into an embarrassing retraction.

Mr. Chirac, who was hospitalized for a week in 2005 for a suspected minor stroke, appeared distracted at times, grasping for names and dates, during an interview Monday, according to the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times and a French magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur.

The newspapers said his hands shook slightly and that he read from prepared, large-print notes when discussing climate change, the interview’s planned main focus.

Mr. Chirac’s office switched to damage control yesterday, as foreign governments asked for official clarification, opposition politicians howled in protest and experts speculated he was either joking, being brutally honest, irresponsible or simply speaking off the cuff.

The president called reporters back a day after the interview to try to have his quotes retracted. The three publications said the interview was tape-recorded and on the record.

“Sometimes one can drift off, when one believes there are no consequences. … I honestly believed that the questions aside from the environment were off the record,” Mr. Chirac said in the second interview.

On Monday, Mr. 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.”

Rather, Mr. Chirac said, the danger lies in the chances of proliferation or an arms race in the Middle East, should Iran build a nuclear bomb.

“Where will [Iran] drop it, this bomb? On Israel?” Mr. Chirac asked. “It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”

Mr. Chirac reversed course in the second interview.

“I retract it, of course, when I said, ‘One is going to raze Tehran.’ It was of course a manner of speaking in my mind. I don’t imagine that we could raze Tehran,” he said.

Yesterday, his office released a statement saying France, “along with the international community, cannot accept the prospect of an Iran equipped with a nuclear weapon.”

Leading candidates to replace Mr. Chirac in presidential elections in April and May quickly sought to distance themselves from the president.

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