March 2002 Cabinet Office options paper

“Well, the options paper really said two things. It said you can either go for containment. We can’t guarantee that that’s successful. He will probably continue to develop his programmes and be a threat, but nonetheless that is one option. The other option is regime change.
Tony Blair at the Inquiry, 21 January 2011

The Cabinet Office options paper was produced by the Defence and Overseas Secretariat on 6 March 2002. It considers the options for dealing with the issue of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction (wmd) in the knowledge that the US government has lost patience with the policy of containment and intends to remove Saddam Hussein from power by force.

The Options Paper has perhaps been discussed by a number of witnesses at the Inquiry, which has heard from the then Cabinet Secretary that it was kept from the Cabinet. Nevertheless, Tony Blair has made clear which of the paper’s two options he decided upon.

What is the issue?

The paper makes clear that the two issues to be addressed are Iraq’s presumed development of wmd and the continued existence of Saddam’s regime. However, in subsequent discussion of the options for addressing these issues, it makes clear that the US intention to achieve regime change is an important factor to be considered.

Assessing the options


Containment vs Regime Change

The document purports to discuss two options for dealing with Iraq: tougher action to contain its attempts to develop wmd and regime change. It is noticeable that the policy of toughening containment is very similar to the policy that Blair publicly espoused: the government would first seek to achieve greater scrutiny of Iraq’s supposed wmd, backed up by the threat of military action. The policy of regime change sought the removal of Saddam Hussein with pressure over wmd as a pretext rather than an end in itself.

The paper appears to reject the option of tougher containment on the grounds that the US has lost faith in the policy and devotes much of its discussion to the issue of how to bring about regime change.


The paper states that “a full opinion should be sought from the Law Officers if the above options are developed further.” But the paper says that “in summary CONTAINMENT generally involves the implementation of existing UNSCRs and has a firm legal foundation. Of itself, REGIME CHANGE has no basis in international law.”

As described below, the paper subsequently suggests how a legal justification might be engineered.


By the end of the paper, regime change has become the policy objective. It concludes that “the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back into the international community.”

Achieving regime change

It is possible to interpret the paper as seeking to justify an existing plan to achieve regime change. But the fact that it concludes that regime change is to be the government’s objective and that invasion is to be the mechanism by which it is to be achieved means that the document is in any case most relevant in terms of its suggestions as to how the objective might be brought about.

The paper describes regime change by military means as “a new departure which would require the construction of a coalition and a legal justification.” It is not clear here whether the legal justification is something to be constructed, along with a coalition, or is merely required.

Using the wmd issue as a means of achieving regime change

The paper provides further evidence that the UK government planned to use action aimed at dealing with Iraq’s alleged wmd to help engineer regime change, rather than the other way round.

The paper expresses the view that a resolution from the UN Security Council, on the basis that Iraq was in breach of its disarmament obligations under the ceasefire terms for the 1991 Gulf War would be necessary to provide legal cover for any invasion. It states that to achieve this incontrovertible proof of large scale activity would be required but current intelligence was insufficiently robust to provide this. In the absence of such proof, a UN resolution could be obtained on the basis that Iraq had refused a demand to admit UN weapons inspectors or had admitted them and they “found sufficient evidence of WMD activity or were again expelled trying to do so.”

Among the elements of “a staged approach” to achieving regime change, the paper includes “increasing the pressure on Saddam through tougher containment”, suggesting that “Stricter implementation of sanctions and a military build-up will frighten his regime.” It adds that “A refusal to admit N inspectors, or their admission and subsequent likely frustration, which resulted in an appropriate finding by the Security Council could provide the justification for military action.”


Also among the elements of “a staged approach” is “sensitising the public”. The paper recommends “a media campaign to warm of the dangers that Saddam poses and to prepare public opinion both in the UK and abroad.” Given that this is aimed at achieving regime change, this provides clear evidence that the government’s subsequent use of public information on Iraq’s alleged wmd were intended to secure public backing for war.

The intelligence


The paper’s key statement about the intelligence on Iraq’s alleged wmd is: “Despite sanctions, Iraq continues to develop WMD, although our intelligence is poor.”

As described above, the paper also describes the intelligence as insufficiently robust to provide incontrovertible evidence of large-scale Iraqi activity to develop wmd.

Who saw the options paper and what was decided?


Although there was a significant Cabinet discussion on Iraq on 7 March 2002, the Options Paper was withheld from that meeting. In January 2011, Blair told the Inquiry that he did not know this but former Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson said this about the meeting:

“That was not at the initiative of Number 10. It was prompted by two members of the Cabinet who pressed to have it. There were no papers before it. I think I have read somewhere you asked whether the options paper was before it. The options paper was not before it.”

But, having made clear that the paper set out the two options of “toughened containment” and “regime change”, Blair did tell the Inquiry which option he chose:

“… which side you came down on really depended on whether you thought post-September 11th we had to be change makers or whether we could still be managers. Up to September 11th we had been managing this issue. After September 11th we decided we had to confront and change…”
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