Will Chilcot come too late to give us lessons for Iran?

by Brian Jones

The Guardian’s reporting of the possibility of military strikes against Iran because of its probable (but unproven) nuclear weapons programme and likely UK involvement is particularly relevant to the Digest because, for many of us, the situation in which “lessons learned” from Iraq might be significant was always most likely to be military action involving Iran and its WMD. It is good that comments by John Bone and Bobm have got the ball rolling.

Although the UK aspect – rightly criticised for lack of substance in one Guardian reader’s letter – should be treated with extreme caution, reporting in the US press of statements by those keen to talk-up the potential problem demand attention.

Given the present rumblings and comments on this made by Tony Blair in his evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, there can surely be few acceptable excuses for the Inquiry’s continued leisurely pace. The silence of Parliament on this suggests that the efforts of Sir John Chilcot and co are sliding dangerously close to irrelevance.

The uncertain intelligence and half-baked justification offered in Guardian background pieces for a US/UK attack on Iran’s probable (nuclear) weapons of mass destruction programme sound all too familiar. Fortunately, its leaders (including that in today’s Observer) are much more rational – as was Richard Norton-Taylor’s Comment is Free piece, although I would be less concerned than he about the Iranian leaders’ supposed irrationality. In my view military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would be unlikely to eliminate its likely weapons programme and would only serve to stiffen the resolve of all sides in Iran.

In general terms, I think a couple of points should be noted. This problem continues to be cast in nuclear terms. We hear no mention of any capabilities that Iran may have with biological or chemical weapons capabilities (i.e. WMD). I would be very concerned about provoking a BW-capable Iran that has an extended global reach, not with missiles, but through links with terrorists. Unlike with Iraq, this particular nexus might be far more feasible. And, for this and more direct practical reasons, I’m afraid the dream of disarmament (global or regional) is too distant to guide medium term policy. Thus, as undesirable as it is, the world has to come to terms with an expanding number of states which possess or are on the threshold of possessing not only nuclear but biological and chemical weapons as well.

But why should we, rather than France or Germany, find ourselves embroiled in all this? It is because we have a government dominated by a Tory party that, whilst repeatedly taking Labour to task for its “dodgy” dossier, still, in retrospect and without further explanation, continues to support the decision to go to war in Iraq. I have heard a serving minister include the impossibility of not supporting the US as one element in his explanation. Furthermore, many of the senior civil servants involved in the deception have achieved promotion and are advising the present government on security matters.

It is very difficult to see that even a nuclear armed Iran need be a significant threat to our national security in a timescale that precludes the consideration and development of a more coherent security policy on WMD. Central to that policy may be a re-evaluation of our policy with the US, including its implications with respect to Israel and the Middle East problem in general. I would like to think Chilcot would kick start a debate on this issue. His committee has had time to think about it.

11 comments to this article

  1. Lee Roberts

    on November 7, 2011 at 10:15 am -

    Progressives have been horrified how government ministers have, over the years, abused the official secrets act by banning public access to information to protect their own backsides, or those of their colleagues, even when no issues of security have been involved. This is a gross practice and incompatible with a true accountable democracy. This isnt only what we believe to be true. Hundreds of documents have been declassified under the Chilcot Inquiry, which on inspection show that no issues of national security were involved. It is time that proper accountability was introduced.

    I have filed an E-Petition on this topic, and would like to request your support for the petition and gathering signatures.

    It is here:


    Independent Panel Review of Bans under Official Secrets Act

    Responsible department: Cabinet Office

    This petition calls for an amendment of Official Secrets legislation that requires any government official or minister, who wishes to ban or restrict information from the public based on national security or any other grounds under this legislation, to submit to a review by an independent panel of judges selected by the Supreme Court. The government will have to give full details of their claims that publication would harm national security or other grounds for prohibiting publication. The panel will have the right to endorse government proposals, or overturn them with publication of the full details of the government application along with their judgment, and can call on parliament to impeach officials for egregious behaviour.

    I hope you will consider giving support to the petition.

    Best wishes

    Lee Roberts

  2. chris lamb

    on November 8, 2011 at 8:47 pm -

    For me, Brian, the primary lesson from Iraq is that the Weapons Inspectorate involved- the IAEA in this case- should be permitted to fully report back to the UN Security Council and, after due consideration which calls on all relevant legal advice available to the UN, a decision should be made in the best interests of securing international peace and security on the basis of an affirmative (majority) vote. No other scenario should even be considered as acceptable.

    The Chilcot report is not necessary to draw this lesson. The Conservative-led Coalition is fully aware of the risks and unacceptability of flouting the rules laid down for the Security Council by the UN Charter.

    If there is a military strike against Iran, it is more likely to come as an air strike targeting Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities- after a similar strike on Syria some time back- by the Israeli airforce than from the US, UK or Nato.

    What happens after such an initial air strike is difficult to predict, but if there is a regime crackdown on civilian dissent the US/UK could put through a UN resolution for military force to protect civilians on similar grounds to Libya.

    However, Iran is not Libya and its unpopular civic government is not the supreme power in the country. This resides with the theocracy of the Ayatollahs. Any military strike against Iran is likely to generate a religious resistance unifying around the country’s theocratic leaders which potentially extends outward to Shia populations in other Middle East countries (including Iraq).

  3. John Bone

    on November 9, 2011 at 7:41 am -

    There is the possibility that Chilcot’s report is being delayed deliberately until it is too late.

  4. Brian Jones

    on November 11, 2011 at 12:05 pm -

    For elective military action in the absence of an imminent threat to national security, I tend to agree with you, Chris L. However, I also admit there might be exceptional circumstances of national interest where, as long as the five members of the Security Council retain a veto, limited action might be appropriate in the absence of formal SC approval. (Or are you suggesting a simple majority, regardless of veto, might be enough?)

    However, I do believe there are a number of other extremely important lessons to be learned at the national rather than the international level. Some relate to the improvement of our democratic process, which was the subject of much discussion before we were visited by the confusion of coalition government and the extreme financial crisis. It is all about the relationship and balance of power between parliament, the cabinet and the prime minister. Unfortunately, I doubt that Chilcot will stray into such constitutional areas.

    Also important is more effective oversight of the intelligence agencies/community. I cannot see that the Intelligence and Security Committee is any stronger or more robust now than it was in 2003. If information revealed in the current Iraq Inquiry was made available to it then(which I doubt) then it failed to expose serious incompetence and/or deliberate deception of parliament. If it was denied that information it clearly does not have enough access or teeth to pursue such matters. This is something I believe Chilcot must deal with.

    Misrepresentation of intelligence to bolster the case to justify strikes against Iranian nuclear facities was what I had in mind when I wrote the above.

    I was more than a little interested that in yesterday’s (Thursday’s) editorial, the Guardian suggested that governments should accept that Iran will shortly acquire a nuclear weapons capability. However, it did not go as far as I do in suggesting we may have to tolerate a few other countries doing the same. After all Israel, Pakistan, India and probably North Korea are already on the list, quite apart from a longer list of countries which have the infrastructure and technological capability to move quickly to acquire nuclear weapons should they decide to do so (threshold states).

  5. Bobm

    on November 11, 2011 at 6:27 pm -

    Thank you, Brian, for the honourable mention in your piece.
    I, too, was favourably struck by the line taken in the Guardian editorial. But I would like to see the Guardian go further, and challange the “lock-step” [with the US and Israel] assumption that continues to infuse political discourse in the UK. Mr Hague declined this week to rule out UK involvement in military action against Iran, but he had the grace to use very temperate language, suggesting only that it was never good policy to rule any option out.

    Robert Grenier, formerly of the CIA and now a regular Al Jazeera contributor, has a theory that Mr Obama believes that the two-state solution in Palestine is a busted flush; and that the best the US can do for Israel is try to protect it from itself while it comes to its senses and accepts that a one-state solution is the only realistic and proper outcome. [This is not, of course, a new idea, but it is reassuring to hear regular doubts expressed by senior US figures as to the wisdom of the present policy.]

    I raise this ostensibly off-topic point because I think that the more that fixed assumptions on our best interests in the Middle East are publicly challanged, the more likely that Chilcot will pose relevant questions. He will, as Brian says, be reluctant to stray very far into constitutional ground. But what on earth are the other members of the panel for if not to give the Inquiry some contextual curiosity?

    I have failed to trace the Grenier article that directly addressed Obama’s dilemma, but here is a link to a related article.


  6. chris lamb

    on November 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm -

    It is my undertanding that Article 27 of the UN Charter only permits an affirmative vote of a minimum 9 Permanent Members where positive action is to be initiated to restore international peace and security.

    The veto is a negative power- deployed to negate a decision- but cannot initiate action. (Of course, it can be questioned whether the arrangements the UN currently have reserving power of the veto for an elite of States are the most reasonable).

    It does not follow that, because a veto can be exercised to negate, there exists- or should exist- an equivalent power for a small minority of States to unilaterally initiate military action. This would threaten the whole basis of ‘collective security’ which necessitates majority decision making.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, Brian, about the need for Chilcot to address the constitutional shortcomings which allowed the Iraq debacle and the need for greater transparency/ democratic accountability over the Executive (rather than just scrutiny by Parliament).

    Chilcot has signed up to a report by the Institute of Government- a body of the Establishment great and good- which addresses constitutional shortcomings of the kind evidenced with Iraq and proposes remedies in a technocratic kind of way. I suspect that this will be a template for his Panel’s report to build on:


    I also agree with your concerns about the misuse of intelligence for political purposes, apparently without any form of constraint. I cannot see that Chilcot can avoid addressing it in a serious way. Whether this proves too late for the developing Iran crisis I do not know.

  7. John Bone

    on November 15, 2011 at 11:45 am -

    “I have heard a serving minister include the impossibility of not supporting the US as one element in his explanation.”

    If it was impossible to not support the USA when it decided to invade Iraq then all the other elements of an explanation are of secondary importance (or even irrelevant). By its nature, a convention that the UK has to support the US would trump any other justification for military action: it cannot be just an element in an explanation, it is the key element.

    Yet, despite that, it is something that is difficult to discuss openly in UK politics. Is it just a convention? Is there a written obligation? What would happen if a UK PM said “Sorry but your plans ae too daft”? Looking at some of the primary election debates in the USA, a discussion of this would seem to be urgent.

  8. Brian Jones

    on November 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm -

    I agree this is a huge issue that should be thoroughly debated. Several heavyweights (Robin Cook, Clare Short) have discussed it in this context and it is something the Iraq Inquiry appears to have pursued. The minister I mentioned does not appear to be the brightest button in the box and his overall logic was glib, but during my time in Whitehall, just about every policy decision arising from work I was involved in was guided by staying in step with the US and often did not make sense to me.

    But the issues are not all on one side. Trying to eschew the benefit of hindsight I try to explain how things looked to me just before the invasion on pages 104-107 of my book.

  9. chris lamb

    on November 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm -

    As a corrective comment of mine mysteriously disappeared, below is the link for the Better Government Initiative (upon whose Board Sir John Chilcot sits). It has produced reports directly relevant to the Chilcot inquiry:


    Also a link to a site containing (and discussing)the IAEA annex report on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme:


    I am no expert to comment on the veracity of this Report, but repeat my view that the primary lesson from Iraq is that the UN Charter rules governing collective security and majority decision making should be complied with to the letter allowing no deviation for a minority of States to unilaterally initiate military force.