The Risks of another unnecessary war on Iran are very real - the risks of not acting are proven by Iranian government actions (especially in 1988) to be propaganda, just as they were with Saddam - as proven by his actions in 1991 - when he did have WMD, but didn't use them
Tony Blair and others who called for "action" to prevent the supposed "threat" from Iraq and are saying the same about Iran now are calling for actions which risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of strengthening support for terrorist groups and letting them get access to WMDs during the chaos of war and "regime change". Saddam's actions in 1991 (when he did have WMD) proved he wasn't willing to risk using them on nuclear armed states or their allies (and was only willing to use them on his own people while the rest of the world looked the other way and kept funding and arming him against Iran). Iran's rulers similarly showed they have no appetite for glorious personal and national martyrdom in 1988. Weapons inspections in 2002 to 2003 were working. If Saddam had had large stocks of WMD the chaos after the invasion would have let looters steal and sell them, as they did with conventional munitions.
Weapons inspectors weren’t expelled in 1998 –
and weren’t being duped in 2003
Tony Blair and his adherents still claim that Saddam “duped, bribed and expelled weapons inspectors”. In fact Saddam never expelled UN inspectors. The UNSCOM inspections teams present from 1991 were withdrawn in 1998 due to Clinton and Blair announcing bombing in ‘Operation Desert Fox’, giving them only hours notice ;and refused re-entry when it was found CIA agents had infiltrated UNSCOM to identify Iraqi air defence and military barracks sites to bomb , with only 13 out of the first 100 targets on the 'Operation Desert Fox' target list having any connection to suspected biological or chemical weapons or missiles that could deliver them (1) – (3).
UNSCOM from 1991 to 1998 certainly didn't get full, prompt and unrestricted access to all the Iraqi sites they wished to inspect, but things were different with UNMOVIC from 2002. The threat of war was getting results.
In February 2003 Hans Blix, head of the new UNMOVIC UN weapons inspection teams, reported to the UN Security Council that inspectors had destroyed mustard gas stocks and identified empty chemical warheads for scud missiles along with Iraqi missiles exceeding the permitted 150 kilometre range (4). Just three weeks later on 7th March he updated them on the destruction of 34 Al Samoud 2 missiles, 2 combat warheads, 1 launcher and 5 engines” along with two missile casting chambers.” He added that inspections “faced relatively few difficulties and certainly much less than ...in... 1991 to 1998, perhaps due to strong outside pressure ”, estimating completion within “months”. (5).
The risk in Iran, as in Iraq, is chaos caused by war allowing terrorists to sieze of buy WMD - and the collapse of the Soviet Union shows even this risk is exaggerated
Instead Bush rushed to war, creating chaos in Iraq and leading Saddam's forces to mostly flee or go into hiding. As a result large amounts of conventional arms as well as ammunition, shells and mines were looted and likely eventually sold to terrorist groups and militias. Construction machinery which could potentially be used to make chemical and nuclear weapons was also looted from many sites long before US troops arrived (though as most of it was "dual use" it could equally have been sold to companies making civilian products) (6) - (8).
If the Bush administration genuinely believed Saddam had WMD and had - as it claimed - identified WMD sites, it's strange that they didn't bother to secure these sites right away with special forces air-dropped to them.
If Saddam had genuinely had large stocks of WMD and "active" WMD programmes then the invasion would have created the chaos in which they could sieze or buy them (with the same holding true for any planned invasion of Iran). The threat of terrorist groups getting WMDs during the chaos of war and "regime change" was always a much greater threat than the ridiculous claims that Saddam was about to committ suicide by proxy by arming terrorist groups with WMDs.
During the 1991 war, when Saddam did have over a dozen chemical warheads for his Scud missiles, he used none of them in attacks on Coalition forces, Kuwait or Israel. Instead he used conventional warheads (9). While the authors of the book ‘After the Storm’, who include former CIA man Joseph Nye, consider this to be one of the “great mysteries” of the war, there is nothing mysterious about it. Saddam was not willing to risk nuclear retaliation by using any kind of WMD on nuclear armed states or their allies.
That's why the original British MoD intelligence assessment said Saddam might use WMDs on coalition forces “if attacked” and on the point of being overthrown, but was unlikely to do so otherwise. Tony Blair and his advisers had the “if attacked” removed (10).
This is the vital point; and despite Tony Blair’s endless and typically wild eyed and alarmist claims about the “threat” from Iran holds good for Iran’s rulers too (11) – (13). However brutal they are, they have proven they aren’t willing to risk national annihilation by using nuclear weapons on nuclear armed states (who include Israel, France, the US and the UK) or their allies. If they wanted glorious national martyrdom they could have had it in 1988 when, after the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, they thought the US was joining the Iran-Iraq war directly on the Iraqi side with its own forces. Instead they accepted an ignominious peace – and the people who persuaded Ayatollah Khomeini to make peace included the generals of the Revolutionary Guard, Ayatollah Khameini and Ayatollah Rafsanjani – all senior figures in the current Iranian government (14) – (16).
That’s why Condoleezza Rice wrote in 2000 that :‘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.’ (17)
That, unlike some of the things she’s said since, was absolutely true. One of real questions we should have been asking about Iraq and should be asking about Iran (and Pakistan) is not "Do they have or want to acquire nuclear weapons or WMD?", but "Will they use them on us and our allies despite the risk of nuclear annhilation if they do so?". The answer has always been no. Since any government in the world has the capability to build WMD within years or decades if it chooses (chemical weapons at the least) the question is "would they use them?". The second question is "would they use them on their own people". In Saddam's case the answer was - only when the whole world was willing to look the other way as he did while fighting the Iranians. In the case of Iran's government there is no reason to think they would use nuclear weapons on rebels, dissidents and separatists in their own country even if they had them, any more than the US would try to use such weapons on similar militias and terrorist groups in Iraq or Afghanistan - because to do so in either case would kill their own troops along with their enemies.
Even the risk of chaos caused by war or revolution allowing WMDs into the wrong hands is greatly exaggerated. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it had vast stocks of nuclear weapons, missiles and materials spread over a vast area now made up of dozens of countries, many of them in a state of civil war. Yet almost 20 years later, with Russia having fought a brutal war in Chechnya with many war crimes and acts of terrorism on both sides (and the Russian's enemies including many Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups), there have been no nuclear attacks by terrorists, no nuclear missiles fired by terrorist groups. This puts the risk in Pakistan and Iran into perspective. Though it should not be discounted entirely any war on either would almost certainly increase the chaos and so the risk rather than decrease it - much as in Iraq.
(1) = Guardian.co.uk 17 Dec 1998 ‘Missile blitz on Iraq’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1998/dec/17/iraq.ewenmacaskill ; ‘The US and Britain unleashed air strikes against Iraq last night ... A few hours before the attack began, 125 UN personnel were hurriedly evacuated from Baghdad to Bahrain, including inspectors from the UN Special Commission on Iraq and the International Atomic Energy Agency.’
(2) = BBC News 23 Mar 1999 ‘Unscom 'infiltrated by spies'’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/301168.stm ; (summary of Panorama programme interviewing former UNSCOM personnel including Scott Ritter) ,‘US intelligence agents succeeded in smuggling into Baghdad a large and sophisticated listening device known as "Stephanie". The device was kept in the office safe of American weapons inspector, Scott Ritter.... In Operation Desert Fox last December, when the US and Britain launched sustained air strikes on Iraq, they used the "Stephanie" material to help them choose their targets, the programme says.’
(3) = Washington Post 16 Jan 1999 ‘Analysis - The Difference Was in the Details’,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/iraq/analysis.htm ; ‘It is clear from the target list, and from extensive communications with almost a dozen officers and analysts knowledgeable about Desert Fox planning, that the U.S.-British bombing campaign was more than a reflexive reaction to Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with UNSCOM's inspectors. The official rationale for Desert Fox may remain the "degrading" of Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and the "diminishing" of the Iraqi threat to its neighbors. But careful study of the target list tells another story.
Thirty-five of the 100 targets were selected because of their role in Iraq's air defense system, an essential first step in any air war, because damage to those sites paves the way for other forces and minimizes casualties all around. Only 13 targets on the list are facilities associated with chemical and biological weapons or ballistic missiles, and three are southern Republican Guard bases that might be involved in a repeat invasion of Kuwait.
The heart of the Desert Fox list (49 of the 100 targets) is the Iraqi regime itself: a half-dozen palace strongholds and their supporting cast of secret police, guard and transport organizations.’
(4) = Briefing of the Security Council, 14 February 2003: An update on inspections, Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC, Dr. Hans Blix, http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/new/pages/security_council_briefings.asp#6
(5) = Briefing of the Security Council, 7 March 2003: Oral introduction of the 12th quarterly report of UNMOVIC, Executive Chairman Dr. Hans Blix,http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/new/pages/security_council_briefings.asp#7
(6) = NYT 13 Mar 2005 'Looting at Weapons Plants Was Systematic, Iraqi Says',http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/13/international/middleeast/13loot.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
(7) = United States Government Accountability Office Mar 2007 Report to Congressional Committees - Operation Iraqi Freedom - DOD should apply lessons learned concerning the need for security over conventional munitions storage sites to future operations planning,http://www.fas.org/asmp/resources/110th/GAO07444.pdf
(8) = Federation of American Scientists Security Blog 09 Apr 2007,http://www.fas.org/blog/ssp/2007/04/iraqs_looted_arms_depots_what.php
(9) = Nye , Joseph S. & Smith , Robert K. (1992), ‘After the Storm' , Madison Books , London , 1992 , - pages 211-216 (Nye is a former CIA agent)
(10) = Guardian 24 Sep 2003 ‘Blair aide boosted dossier threat’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/sep/24/uk.iraq
(11) = Guardian Unlimited 19 Oct 2007, 11.30 am update, ‘Blair accuses Iran of fuelling 'deadly ideology' of militant Islam’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,,2195043,00.html
(12) = Times 30 Jan 2010 ‘Iraq inquiry: Tony Blair slated for Iran threat claim’,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article7009478.ece
(13) = BBC News 04 Sep 2010 ‘Radical Islam is world's greatest threat - Tony Blair’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-11182225
(14) = Takeyh, Ray (2006), ‘Hidden Iran - Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Times Books, New York, 2006 - pages 170-174
(15) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(2004), ‘The Persian Puzzle', Random House, New York, 2005 paperback edition - pages 231-233
(16) = Rice, Condoleeza (2000) in Foreign Affairs January/February 2000‘ - 'Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest', http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20000101faessay5-p50/condoleezza-rice/campaign-2000-promoting-the-national-interest.html - 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