On the subject of Iran one day having a nuclear weapon the reporters quoted Chirac as saying: "Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 metres into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground."

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Chirac called the reporters back to his office a day after speaking to them and withdrew many of his remarks, saying he thought he was speaking off the record in the first interview.

Both the IHT and New York Times said Chirac, 74, appeared distracted at times and struggled to remember names and dates in the first interview, but appeared more alert the next day.

The French president was also quoted as saying it would not be very dangerous for Iran to have a nuclear bomb, but the main danger was that other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would follow suit.

Retraction

"I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb - having one, maybe a second one a little later, well, that's not very dangerous," Chirac was quoted as saying in the first interview.

"But what is very dangerous is proliferation," he said.

His remarks went against the official position of France, and allies Britain, Germany, the United States, Russia and China, which are pressuring Tehran to abandon sensitive nuclear technology that could be used to make atom bombs.

The following day Chirac retracted, among other remarks, his prediction that a nuclear Iran could encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to build a bomb.

"I retract it, of course, since neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has made the slightest declaration on these subjects, so it is not up to me to make them," he said.

The paper said it was not clear if Chirac's initial remarks reflected what he truly thought about Iran or whether he had misspoken.