LONDON - For more than two years all the big western powers have insisted that Iran's nuclear power program is secretly intended to produce nuclear weapons, and that the minute it gets them, it will launch them at Israel.
But last Thursday, France's President Jacques Chirac said something very different. He said that Iran would never use them first.
"I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of [Iran] having a nuclear bomb," Mr. Chirac said in reply to a journalist's question during an interview that was originally meant to be about climate change. "[Iran] having one [bomb], or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that's not very dangerous."
Shock! Horror! Mr. Chirac is bucking the party line, which is that Iran is run by a bunch of fanatical crazies who would immediately use their new nuclear weapons against Israel.
"Where will [Iran] drop it, this bomb?" Mr. Chirac asked scornfully. "On Israel? [The missile] would not have gone 200 meters into the air before Tehran would be razed to the ground." He spoke as if deterrence would work even against Iran. As if the country were run by sane human beings who don't want their children to be burned, crushed, and vaporized by Israeli and American nuclear weapons. He's not supposed to talk like that in public.
In Mr. Chirac's view, the danger is not that Iran would be irresponsible with its nuclear weapons, but that they would lead to a general proliferation of such weapons in the Middle East. "Why wouldn't Saudi Arabia do it?" he asked. "Why wouldn't it help Egypt to do it as well? That is the real danger." But he's not supposed to say that either.
Those are the West's allies, the very countries that the United States is currently trying to mobilize as the leaders of an anti-Iranian alliance of Sunni Arab countries.
Mr. Chirac was simply stating the truth as he (and many others) see it, but his comments completely undermined the joint western position, so the following day he was forced to retract them. He still didn't say that he was wrong, however, just that he had thought he was "off the record" when discussing Iran, as the interview was originally about climate change.
France is clearly very worried by the drumbeat of anti-Iranian propaganda in Washington, which sounds alarmingly similar to the campaign of misinformation waged by the Bush Administration before it attacked Iraq.
Last month Mr. Chirac was forced to cancel a planned visit to Tehran by the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, because his allies did not trust France to stick to the party line. They were doubtless right in their suspicions - but France is right, too.
France is right to argue that Iranian nuclear weapons, if they existed, would be primarily defensive in nature and would not be used to attack Israel, because nuclear deterrence still works and Iranians do not want their country to commit suicide. It is also right to worry that an Iranian bomb would create pressures for further proliferation, as Arab countries that have lived under the threat of Israeli nuclear weapons for 40 years decide that living under the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons as well, with no means of deterrence or retaliation, is simply intolerable.
France is utterly hypocritical in worrying about Middle Eastern countries owning nuclear weapons when it has had them itself for almost half a century, but that is equally true for all the other great powers. And it is jumping to conclusions when it assumes that Iran's stated (and quite legal) desire to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation conceals a drive to get an actual nuclear weapon as soon as possible.
The truth may be that Iran is for the moment seeking only a "threshold" nuclear weapons capacity: a level of technological expertise from which it could, in an emergency, develop actual nuclear weapons in only six months or so. Such a position is entirely legal, and some 40 countries currently occupy it.
The truth may also be that the nuclear-armed neighbor Iran really worries about is not Israel but Pakistan, whose 1998 nuclear tests scared Iranian strategists half to death. They don't worry about the intentions of Pakistan's current dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but they know that it is a one-bullet regime and they worry a great deal about what kind of fanatics might succeed him in power.
So maybe Mr. Chirac's gaffe was not as accidental as it seemed. Maybe he wanted people to re-examine all the lies and half-truths we are told about Iran as Washington seems to be gearing up for another attack. And maybe we should.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.