By Matthias Blamont
CHERBOURG, France (Reuters) - French President NicolasSarkozy announced cuts in France's atomic arsenal on Friday butvowed to keep a strong enough deterrent against threats such asthe possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Speaking at the launch of France's fourth of its latestgeneration of nuclear-armed submarines, the "Terrible"(Fearsome), Sarkozy said his nation had to face new securitythreats, including Iran, and needed to be able to strike backforcefully 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 programme. Europe's security is at stake," he said.
Sarkozy noted that an experts' commission would presentproposals on security and national defence reform in comingweeks but he said the defence budget would not be cut.
"The defence budget is the second biggest in the state. Itwill stay that way and it will not decline," he said.
But he pledged to keep tight control of spending onFrance's nuclear deterrent, which he said matched theequivalent of half the national justice or transport budgetsand said the atomic arsenal would be kept to the strict minimumnecessary.
He said the airborne nuclear strike force would be cut by athird, leaving France with fewer than 300 warheads.
"That is half the maximum number of warheads we had duringthe Cold War," he said.
Sarkozy's reference to Iran underlined the changedcircumstances since the end of the Cold War.
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 programme.
Iran denies the charges, saying it only wants to makeelectricity. It also continues to expand its long-range missileprogramme, and says it can hit targets 2,000 km (1,250 miles)away, heightening concern 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.
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 other countries to dothe same, including nuclear powers the United States and China.He also suggested setting further limits on proliferation.
He suggested talks should start on a treaty banningproduction of fissile materials for nuclear weapons andproposed talks on a treaty banning short- and mid-rangeground-to-ground missiles, a category which includes Scud-typemissiles.
(Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)