Chapter 8: The Risks of Action

The Risks of Action : Missing the point on WMDs and nuclear weapons programmes :

Its not whether they exist but whether "rogue states" or terrorists would really use them first if they had them ; and whether more wars or 'tactical nuclear' air strikes on Iran or Pakistan could create a self-fulfilling prophecy from a threat that currently doesn't exist

"These regimes [rogue states] are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them. Rather, the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence -- if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration"Condoleeza Rice, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine , September 2000 (1)

"The real problem is that, underneath, people dispute that Iraq is a threat; dispute the link between terrorism and WMD; dispute the whole basis of our assertion that the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life."Tony Blair, parliamentary debate on Iraq, March 2003 (2)

Most of the debate on whether to go to war on Iraq and now on Iran has focused on whether these countries had or are developing nuclear weapons when the real issue is whether they actually pose any potential threat to us if they do ( or why these governments want them). The reality is that Iran, without any nuclear deterrent, is being threatened with war and even attack with nuclear weapons by the US and Israel but has made no such threats towards Israel itself when wilful mis-translations of the words of Ahmadinejad and of his political powers in Iran are seen for what they are. The truth is most hostile governments want nuclear weapons for the same reasons most countries want them - as deterrents against attack. If we ignore this reality though we could just maybe create a threat that currently doesn't exist.

George W. Bush and his allies in the British government have compared the supposed "threats" posed by Saddam's WMDs in the past and by Al Qa'ida and the Iranian government's nuclear programme in the present to those posed by fascism or Nazism in the 1920s, 1930s and World War Two. Bush has also claimed there is the threat of a Second Holocaust, this time nuclear and against Israel. (3), (4)

The debate over whether to go to war on Iraq and how to deal with Iran still focuses on whether these countries had "weapons of mass destruction" or are trying to develop them , on the assumption that if they did have them or acquire them these governments are so uniquely insane or unpredictable they'd be likely to attack us or our allies with them, or hand them over to Al Qa'ida or Hezbollah who would then attack us or Israel with them.

Although most of the evidence suggests Saddam had no WMDs or long ranged missiles by 2002 and Iran's nuclear programme is indeed for civilian power this debate continues to mostly miss the point - which is that there has never been a government suicidal enough to risk nuclear war (5), (6), (7), (8), (9). The past behaviour of Saddam showed he was no exception and the same holds for the Iranian government, semi-theocratic or not. In short deterrence works and governments which want nuclear weapons all want them as deterrents, not as tools for a suicidal armageddon.

Why the WMD and nuclear "threats" aren't real

There was never any threat from Saddam's WMDs for the simple reason that he was deterred from using them by the nuclear weapons possessed by Israel, the US, the UK and France; and for the same reasons from using WMDs on any allies of these countries. For instance in the 1991 Gulf War when he had chemical warheads for his scud missiles he used only conventional warheads in scud attacks on Israel to avoid nuclear retaliation (10). So whether Saddam still had or was developing WMDs then was irrelevant - a non-issue. For the same reason whether Iran's nuclear programme is developing only civilian nuclear power or nuclear weapons is irrelevant. The idea that Iran's government, as a religious government, might be willing to commit national suicide is as ludicrous and as disproven by thier own past actions as the idea that Saddam might nuke us our hand WMDs to Al Qa'ida. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 the currently most powerful members of government in Iran (and the entire leadership of the Revolutionary Guards) pushed Khomeini to negotiate a humiliating peace rather than go down to glorious martyrdom. So if they do in the future develop nuclear weapons they'll want them as a deterrent against attack by the US and Israel, not to attack Israel in a war of national or global suicide (11), (12).

That's why, during the 2000 US Presidential election campaign, Condoleeza Rice wrote:"if they ["rogue states"]do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration" (13)

Of course supposedly September 11th "changed everything" but in fact the risks of nuclear or any other kind of WMD attack by "rogue states" against nuclear armes states or their allies- or of "rogue states" providing WMDs to terrorist groups they have no control over, were precisely zero on September 10th 2001, on September 11th 2001 and remain zero today.

Who's threatening who with nuclear attack?

The greatest risk of any state using nuclear weapons on another is that the US or Israel might carry out their repeated threats to attack Iran, possibly with "tactical" or "mini" nukes dropped by aircraft (14), (15). (Funding for the development of these weapons was approved by the US congress in 2003 (16).) This would be possible, just like Saddam's gassing of Iraqi Kurds and Iranians when the US was arming him as their ally in the 1980s, because the potential victims have no nuclear deterrent of their own. Prospective Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has suggested US forces could use nuclear weapons in Pakistan against Al Qa'ida ; while in a debate among potential Republican candidates all but one favoured a "pre-emptive" nuclear strike on Iran to prevent it acquiring nuclear weapons (17),(18). So it seems any risk of any other country acquiring nuclear weapons must be eliminated before they can use them against our innocent civilians - by ...using ours on them, even though none of their politicians has ever suggested using nuclear weapons on us or our allies.

The Ahamadinejad "wipe Israel off the map" quote was a wilful mistranslation in which he actually said he hoped "the regime that rules over Jerusalem will be eliminated from the pages of history" and clarified that he meant "Israel will be wiped out soon the way the Soviet Union was" (i.e by its own population overthrowing its government). This can hardly be interpreted as a threat of nuclear war, especially since a similar possibility was raised more recently by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he said that if a two state peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians could not be negotiated an Apartheid style struggle ending in a binational state with Jews a minority would probably result (19), (20), (21. That's apart from the fact that Iranian Presidents, unlike American Presidents, are not the Commander in Chief of their country's military in theory or in practice and would never have a finger on the nuclear trigger even if Iran did develop nuclear weapons and even if he did want to use them on Israel (22), (23).

The development of "mini-nukes" by the US and the UK's upgrading to a new Trident system are in fact also breaches of Article Six of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty which these governments accuse Iran of breaking, because that treaty bans the development of new nuclear weapons by states which already have nuclear arsenals since under its terms they are meant to be securing "a cessation of the nuclear arms race", not building new nuclear weapons. Iran's nuclear programme however, as long as it remains civilian, is explicitly permitted by Article Four of the Treaty). (24), (25)

Might "rogue states" hand WMDs to terrorists who'd then use them?

As for the idea that Saddam might have supplied WMDs to Al Qa'ida this was always ridiculous as Saddam had killed any Islamic jihadist he caught and they were equally keen to overthrow and kill him. Then there's the theory that Iran might supply nuclear warheads to Hezbollah or Al Qa'ida or Hamas to attack Israel. This would merely be risking suicide by proxy for Iran's government, which as a result would never do so - apart from the fact that Al Qa'ida include Sunni extremists who consider any Shia who oppress any Sunnis (such as the Iranian government) to be apostates who should be killed, so Iran's government are enemies of Al Qa'ida and other Sunni extremists like the Taliban (26). Hezbollah itself, which unlike Al Qa'ida is not just a terrorist group but also a political party and in practice the government of much of Lebanon is not likely to decide to risk bringing nuclear annhilation down on its own leadership and people either (it previously had ministers in the national government and runs the only working public services in much of the country) (27). The same goes for Hamas (28).

The real link between WMDs and terrorism : the invade anywhere pretexts

So there is a link between WMDs and terrorism, but its not the mythical link of "rogue states" who might supposedly supply terrorists with WMDs; the link is that both are useful pretexts for war anytime, anywhere. Any country in the world could potentially develop nuclear weapons ; the technology exists and inevitably is spreading. Similarly any country in the world could concievably have Al Qa'ida operatives in it - even the US did before 9-11. So these are both cards the Bush administration plays to justify un-necessary wars for profit and power.

'Acting' could create a self-fulfilling prophecy that 'inaction' would avoid

"The world understands that whilst, of course, there are dangers in acting the dangers of inaction are far, far greater."Tony Blair, statement on military action in Afghanistan, 7th October 2001 (29)

"Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network, or a murderous dictator, or the two working together, constitutes as grave a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action.US Vice President Dick Cheney 26th August 2002" (30)

"The threat is chaos. And there are two begetters of chaos. Tyrannical regimes with WMD and extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam.Tony Blair parliamentary debate on Iraq 18th March 2003 (31)

There is though one way that Iran's government could become so extreme that those willing to use nuclear weapons come to power ; or that terrorists could get hold of nuclear weapons or other WMDs and consider using them. That way though is if our governments create a self-fulfilling prophecy, whether deliberately or by accident, by going to war on or using nuclear weapons against countries like Iran or Pakistan. By believing in a threat that doesn't exist and acting accordingly we could make the threat real.

We've been told over and over again on Iran, as on Iraq, that "the risks of inaction are far greater than those of acting".

However the fine theoretical distinction between being nuked with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons may be missed by the survivors if "mini-nukes" were used and would at the least make America's enemies likely to retaliate in kind. As the physicist Freeman J. Dyson of Princeton University, who chaired a study on whether to use 'tactical nukes' during the Vietnam war, put it "It's very simple...If we get into the business of using tactical nukes the other side will use them too."(32).

That warning should apply to the idea of tactical nuclear strikes on Al Qa'ida as much as on suspected Iranian nuclear weapons development facilities. Low grade nuclear materials for a "dirty bomb" are not in short supply on the black market, particularly in the former Soviet Union. If Al Qa'ida had wanted to they could have used them in the 9-11 attacks or the Madrid or London bombings. If the US was to use nuclear weapons on Al Qa'ida they would almost certainly respond in kind - and the political fallout from the number of Muslim civilians killed by any nuclear attack in Pakistan might well lead to civil war or an Islamic revolution there.

War on another Muslim country would risk shifting the politics of all Muslim countries towards violent fundamentalists - and would at the least be likely to make existing governments, militias and terrorist groups respond in kind or, if thats impossible, in other ways.

This may in fact be part of US Vice-President Dick Cheney's plan. According to Seymour Hersh, a reporter with sources in the Pentagon and the Bush administration who has proven reliable over the decades, Vice President Cheney plans to incite Iran into an attack on US troops in Iraq which could then be used as a justification for war with Iran presented as the aggressor. One method is the deployment of special forces in Iran since 2004. Another is the funding and training in co-operation with the Saudis of Sunni extremist terrorist groups like Jundullah who carry out bombings, kidnappings and beheadings inside Iran. "Limited air strikes" in supposed "self-defence" to prevent the "threat" posed by Iran's nuclear programme is probably just another plan to incite an Iranian reaction which could justify all out war, invasion and regime change - which US public opinion will never back without the appearance of Iranian aggression against US troops. Cheney undoubtedly knows any air strikes on Iran would be met with either direct Iranian counter-attacks on US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf or else with large scale Iranian support for militias hostile to the occupying US forces in both countries. Given the heavy casualties taken by Israeli forces against Hezbollah in 2006 there is no guarantee the US could win such a war. Most likely heavy casualties would lead public opinion to oppose it and Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly safe bases or supply routes for war on Iran given domestic military opposition. We know also though that the Bush administration tends to plan on the basis of wildly optimistic assumptions.(33), (34), (35)

The greatest risk of terrorist groups acquiring WMDs comes not from more governments building nuclear weapons but from the kind of chaos and civil war created by the "war on terror" in Iraq spreading to Iran and even to countries which do have nuclear weapons already - like Pakistan - due to the poverty and chaos created by supporting dictatorships like Musharrafs and funding wars like that taking place in Afghanistan and planned on Iran instead of education and healthcare that might let more people afford to learn to read, buy books, get an education and healthcare other than through religious madrassas.

Tony Blair was right that chaos is a threat - but wrong to think that war and sanctions that brutalise and starve entire countries would bring order instead of chaos. No kind of democratic or stable order can be imposed purely by the chaos of war and military occupation.

The degree of extremism in most Muslim countries is routinely exaggerated by western politicians. For instance Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, reported to be an ally of President Ahmadinejad, has issued fatwas which contradict Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini's fatwas against nuclear weapons saying <i> "When the entire world is armed with nuclear weapons, it is permissible to use these weapons as a counter-measure. According to Sharia too, only the goal is important."</i> Yet other than the "ends justify means" part even this sounds more moderate than the many American politicians and Pentagon briefers to be most willing to use tactical nuclear weapons "pre-emptively" against Iran and in Pakistan - because Yazdi seems to be only suggesting that a nuclear attack could be met with a nuclear counter attack, not suggesting first use (36).

More Double Standards

This is another example of a policy really motivated by lust for power and profits operating a double standard in which "we" and our allies need nuclear weapons as a deterrent against WMD attack by others, but our enemies (or targets for conquest) can't be trusted to want them for the same reasons. Our governments supposedly are always admirably sane, rational and moral while their enemies are just so damn crazy they'd committ mass suicide to destroy us as soon as look at us. Question this and you are met with the ridiculous claim that since some Muslim extremists have carried out suicide bombings governments run by "extremist" Muslims are likely to committ national suicide. The most comprehensive study of suicide bombings found that the motive for suicide bombings was not religion but ending military occupations (Bin Laden considering US troops' presence in Saudi an occupation). It also found that half of all suicide bombings between 1980 and 2003 were carried out by Communists or Socialists (many of them atheists) with 75% of those in Lebanon carried out by Communists or Socialists (37). Yet no Communist government with nuclear weapons ever considered starting an all out nuclear war of national or global suicide. Nor will any entire government, Muslim, semi-theocratic or otherwise. "They" are not completely crazy; they want nuclear weapons for the same reason "we" want them - as a deterrent against others using those weapons on them.

The idea that we can trust the word of the British, American or Israeli governments but Iran's government is not to be trusted is equally ludicrous. Tony Blair as Prime Minister claimed to have hard evidence that Saddam possessed an active WMD programme which has still not materialised five years later while Bush and Cheney lied repeatedly about "links" between Saddam and Al Qaeda. It's no secret either that Israel has had a nuclear arsenal of dozens of warheads for decades, but this didn't stop Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claiming that "Israel has said repeatedly that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East, and this policy has not changed." (38) Now Iran's government may or may not be telling the truth when President Ahmadinejad says it has no wish to develop nuclear weapons ; and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini's fatwa banning the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons as un-Islamic may be a smoke-screen for all we know, but there is little evidence that our own governments are more honest than their enemies or that Iran's government is more suicidal than they are (39), (40).

( The "moderate" Sunni regimes include the Saudi government, a torturing dictatorship who have victims of rape flogged for suspected adultery , as well as allowing and even sometimes funding the radical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Its fairly clear that , as Noam Chomsky has said, "moderate" merely means our allies or those who do what they're told - and "extremist" means anyone who doesn't obey orders) (41), (42), (43).

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2007

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Sources and Footnotes

(1) = Rice, Condoleeza (2000) in Foreign Affairs January/February 2000‘ - 'Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest' - cited in Chomsky, Noam (2003) 'Hegemony or Survival' , Penguin Books , London & NY 2004, pages 34 & 260 citing Mearsheimer, John & Walt, Stephen (2003) in Foreign Policy Jan/Feb 2003

(2) = Guardian Unlimited 18 March 2003 'Full Text : Tony Blair's Speech‘ ,,,916790,00.html

(3) = Guardian Unlimited 19 Oct 2007, 11.30 am update, ‘Blair accuses Iran of fuelling 'deadly ideology' of militant Islam’,,,2195043,00.html

(4) = White House Press Release 28 Aug 2007, 'President Bush Addresses the 89th Annual National Convention of the American Legion', (final sentence of 19th paragraph reads "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust"

(5) = International Institute for Strategic Studies Press Statement 9 Sep 2002, 'IISS Strategic Dossier - Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction', (see "related documents" at bottom of page which state that Iraq had no missiles with a range longer than 650 kilometres and would have required "several years and significant foreign assistance" to develop nuclear weapons)

(6) = British Government 24 Sep 2002, 'Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction - The assessment of the British Government', Chapter 3, paragraphs 23 to 25 state that in 2002 Iraq would have required at least 5 years to develop long ranged ballistic missiles or nuclear warheads for them

(7) =IAEA News Center 19 Feb 2007 ; ‘Transcript of the Director General´s Interview on Iran and DPRK Financial Times with Daniel Dombey’, ; (see 3rd paragraph below the 5th sub-heading ‘Iran´s Mastering of Nuclear Technology and the Next Steps’ in which El Baradei says : “Yes, they might acquire a little bit more, perfecting the knowledge, but to aim at denying a country knowledge is almost impossible, to say the least. And there´s a big difference between acquiring the knowledge for enrichment and developing a bomb. It is almost impossible for a country to, particularly because this right is quoted under the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], and the difference between acquiring knowledge and having a bomb is at least five to ten years away. And that´s why I said the intelligence, the British, intelligence, the American intelligence, is saying that Iran is still years, five to ten years away from developing a weapon”)

(8) =IAEA News Center 19 Feb 2007 ; ‘Transcript of the Director General´s Interview on Iran and DPRK Financial Times with Daniel Dombey’,

(9) = US National Intelligence Council Nov 2007, ‘Iran : Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities',

(10) = Nye , Joseph S. & Smith , Robert K. (1992), ‘After the Storm' , Madison Books , London , 1992 , - pages 211-216 (Nye is a former CIA officer)

(11) = Hauser Global Law School Program (New York University School of Law) Mar 2006, 'A Guide to the Legal System of the Islamic Republic of Iran' by Omar Sial' ,

(12) = Time magazine 20 Apr 2006‘Iran President's Bark May Be Worse than His Bite',,8599,1185293,00.html

(13) = See (1) above

(14) = CNN 10 April 2006 ‘Hersh: U.S. mulls nuclear option for Iran ',

(15) = Washington Post 09 April 2006, ‘U.S. Is Studying Military Strike Options on Iran', (see 3rd paragraph of 3rd page -

(16) = Washington Post 25 May 2003 ‘We Keep Building Nukes For All the Wrong Reasons',

(17) = Washington Post 03 Aug 2007 ‘Clinton Demurs On Obama's Nuclear Stance : She Says It Is Unwise to Rule Out Using the Arms Against Terrorists',

(18) = CNN 15 June 2007 ‘Republican Presidential Debate Transcript',

(19) = Guardian Unlimited, Comment is Free, 14 June 2006, 'Lost in translation' by Jonathan Steele,

(20) = Jerusalem Post 14 Dec 2006 ‘Ahmadinejad: Israel will be 'wiped out'',

(21) = Guardian 30 Nov 2007, 'Israel risks apartheid-like struggle if two-state solution fails, says Olmert',,,2219485,00.html

(22) = Hauser Global Law School Program (New York University School of Law) Mar 2006, 'A Guide to the Legal System of the Islamic Republic of Iran' by Omar Sial' ,

(23) = Time magazine 20 Apr 2006‘Iran President's Bark May Be Worse than His Bite',,8599,1185293,00.html


(25) =Guardian 19 Feb 2003 'US plan for new nuclear arsenal',,12271,898550,00.html

(26) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(2004), ‘The Persian Puzzle, Random House, New York, 2005 paperback edition - Chapter 12, pages 345-353 (Pollack, a former CIA analyst, says the Iranian government co-operated with logistics and intelligence sharing in the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and were hostile to them and Al Qa'ida, only releasing some Afghan enemies of the US after Bush added Iran to the "Axis of Evil")

(27) = Harik, Judith Palmer (2005), ‘Hezbollah : The Changing Face of Terrorism, I.B. Tauris, London & New York, 2005 paperback edition

(28) = Hroub, Khaled (2006), ‘Hamas : A Beginner's Guide, Pluto Press, London, 2006 paperback edition

(29) = Prime Minister's statement on military action in Afghanistan 7th October 2001,

(30) = White House Press Release 26 Aug 2002, 'Vice President Speaks at VFW 103rd National Convention', ,

(31) = Guardian Unlimited 18 March 2003 'Full Text : Tony Blair's Speech‘ ,,,916790,00.html

(32) = Oakland Tribune 9 Mar 2003 ‘Secret study repudiates mini-nukes Pentagon wants such weapons',

(33) = New Yorker Magazine 5 Mar 2007 , ‘Annals of National Security : The Redirection’,

(34) = ABC News 03 Apr 2007 , ‘ABC News Exclusive: The Secret War Against Iran’,

(35) = Telegraph 17 Jan 2006 , ‘'We will cut them until Iran asks for mercy' ’,

(36) = The Telegraph 19 Feb 2006, 'Iranian fatwa approves use of nuclear weapons',

(37) =Business Week 6 Jul 2005 ‘What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick? ', (discusses Professor Robert Pape's study of suicide bombings published in his book 'Dying to Win'

(38) = Jerusalem Post 14 Dec 2006 ‘Ahmadinejad: Israel will be 'wiped out'',

(39) = Washington Post 24 Sep 2007 ‘Iranian Leader: Tehran Has No Need for Nuclear Bomb',

(40) = CNN 10 Aug 2005 ‘Iran breaks seals at nuclear plant', ; fourth paragraph reads 'Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa declaring the "production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons" against the beliefs of Islam.'

(41) = Amnesty International Annual Report 2007 - Saudi Arabia,

(42) = Independent 11 Dec 2007 ‘In the name of God: the Saudi rape victim's tale',

(43) = Stephen Schwartz, director, Islam and Democracy Program , Foundation for Defense of Democracies ; testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security on Thursday, June 26, 2003 on ‘Wahhabism & Islam in the U.S’ , reproduced in ‘The Nation’ magazine 30 Jun 2003 , ; See especially 7th from last and 6th from last paragraphs which read “A radical critic of Wahhabism stated some years ago that $25m had been spent on Islamic Centers in the U.S. by the Saudi authorities. This now seems a low figure. Another anti-extremist Islamic figure has estimated Saudi expenses in the U.S., over 30 years, and including schools and free books as well as mosques, near a billion dollars.…..It should also be noted that Wahhabi mosques in the U.S. work in close coordination with the Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), Saudi state entities identified as participants in the funding of al Qaeda.”

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2007