Image: Chirac
Demarthon/sipa  /  Sipa Press
French President Jacques Chirac, center left, speaks with his defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, and marines officers after visiting a nuclear submarine on Thursday.
updated 1/19/2006 5:36:48 PM ET 2006-01-19T22:36:48

President Jacques Chirac warned Thursday that France could respond with nuclear weapons to a state-sponsored terrorist attack, broadening the terms of his country’s deterrence in the face of emerging threats.

The warning came as France worked with other Western nations to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear power . But officials and experts said Chirac’s comments were not aimed specifically at Tehran.

“Nuclear deterrence ... is not aimed at dissuading fanatic terrorists,” Chirac said in a speech delivered at the L’Ile-Longue nuclear submarine base in the western region of Brittany.

“Leaders of states who would use terrorist means against us, just like anyone who would envisage using, in one way or another, arms of mass destruction, must understand that they would expose themselves to a firm and fitting response from us,” he said. “This response could be conventional. It could also be of another nature.”

France’s nuclear arsenal is considered a purely deterrent force to protect the nation’s vital interests and is not intended for regular combat.

But Chirac, who has the power to decide on deploying nuclear weapons, said there should be no doubt “about our will and our capacity to use nuclear arms” if the country’s vital interests are threatened.

He addressed new threats in the post-Cold War world. While traditional enemies are now allies of the West, he voiced France’s concerns about volatile new alliances emerging between regional powers and terrorists.

“In numerous countries, radical ideas are spreading, advocating a confrontation of civilizations,” he said, adding “odious attacks” could escalate to “other yet more serious forms involving states.”

Chirac did not explain what he meant by regional powers. But officials close to the president and experts said he was laying out France’s strategic posture, not designating an enemy.

Following U.S. nuclear plan
Bruno Tertrais, a defense expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, said Chirac was not changing the threshold for use of French nuclear weapons but the array of threats that could trigger a nuclear response. The United States moved in the same direction last year.

“This is a message to any kind of regional power that might believe it could bypass French nuclear deterrence by using terrorist means,” Tertrais said.

“This is really Chirac’s nuclear legacy,” he added. The 73-year-old French president, who last addressed the nuclear issue in 2001, ends his second term next year.

Chirac said nuclear warheads have been reduced on some missiles on France’s four nuclear-armed submarines with the aim of targeting specific power centers rather than risking wholesale destruction in an enemy country.

“Against a regional power, our choice is not between inaction and destruction,” Chirac said. “The flexibility and reactiveness of our strategic forces allow us to respond directly on the centers of power.”

Comments not directed exclusively at Iran
Tertrais said he did not believe Chirac was sending a message to Iran.

“That being said, Chirac certainly realizes that Iran will be one of the countries taking notice of the speech.”

Iran broke a 2½-year moratorium last week and restarted nuclear research, which Western countries fear is aimed at developing arms. France, Germany and Britain had been seeking a diplomatic solution with Iran to avoid an international crisis.

Chirac was speaking at a western base with the 110-member crew manning The Vigilant — one of the four nuclear-armed vessels. Submarines carry 85 percent of French nuclear warheads.

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