By Matthias Blamont
CHERBOURG, France (Reuters) - French President NicolasSarkozy pledged on Friday to maintain a strong nuclear weaponsprogram in order to defend his country against threats such asthe possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Speaking at the launch of France's fourth nuclear-armedsubmarine, the "Terrible" (Fearsome), Sarkozy said his nationhad to face new security threats, including Iran, and needed tobe able to strike back forcefully if attacked.
"Everyone must be aware today that even far-flung powers'nuclear missiles can reach Europe in less than half an hour,"Sarkozy said in a speech at the northern port of Cherbourg.
While only major powers had such means today, countries inAsia and the Middle East were conducting a "forced march" toacquire such ballistic missile capabilities, he added.
"I am thinking in particular of Iran. Iran is increasingthe range of its missiles while grave suspicions hang over itsnuclear program. Europe's security is at stake," he said.
The U.N. Security Council has passed three rounds ofsanctions against Iran for failing to allay fears that it istrying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilianpower program.
Iran denies the charges, saying it only wants to makeelectricity. It also continues to expand its long-range missileprogram, and says it can hit targets 2,000 km away, heighteningconcern in the West.
"In the face of proliferation, the international communitymust be united, the international community must be resolute.Because we want peace, we must be without weakness with thosewho violate international norms," Sarkozy said in a thinlyveiled reference to the Islamic republic.
"Maintaining the competences necessary to dissuasion at thehighest level is a fundamental objective for our security," hesaid, adding: "All those who threaten to attack our vitalinterests would expose themselves to a severe riposte byFrance."
Sarkozy proposed measures to limit nuclear stockpiles andput an end to weapons testing after his predecessor JacquesChirac sparked international outrage by testing arms in thesouth Pacific shortly after his 1995 election.
France has since signed and ratified the ComprehensiveNuclear Test Ban Treaty and he called on all other countries todo the same, including nuclear powers the United States andChina.
"I propose to launch without delay negotiations for atreaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclearweapons and to impose an immediate moratorium on the productionof these materials," Sarkozy said.
He also proposed immediate talks on a treaty banning short-and medium-range ground-to-ground missiles, a category whichincludes Scud-type missiles.
(Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Charles Dick)