Terror: British nuclear threats against Iraq

IssueFebruary - March 2023
British defence secretary Geoff Hoon (right) answers questions on the coming war with Iraq, standing with US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, Washington DC, 12 February 2003. PHOTO: RD WARD / DOD VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Feature by Milan Rai

Sometimes, Western nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapon states have been covert operations, signalled secretly by mobilising strategic nuclear weapon systems (like the British V-bombers sent out to Singapore during the Malaysian Confrontation – see PN 2659).

Sometimes, Western nuclear threats have been very, very public.

Such was the case in the run-up to the March 2003 US-UK assault on Iraq.

It was a very long run-up to war, for reasons discussed elsewhere in this issue (see pp 14 – 15).

A year before the invasion began, British defence secretary Geoff Hoon started laying the ground for the attack by threatening Iraq with British nuclear weapons – in the House of Commons and on TV. Very public stuff.

Hoon’s campaign of nuclear threats began on 20 March 2002, when he appeared before the Commons select committee on defence. Towards the end of his appearance, Hoon was asked by Jim Knight, a fellow Labour MP, about whether Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system deterred ballistic missiles, and whether that made a missile defence system unnecessary for the UK.

Hoon’s answer took the conversation in a different direction, raising the question of Iraq, which Knight had not mentioned.

Hoon said: ‘In terms of deterrence, clearly, our nuclear capability deters those who might threaten the United Kingdom with a weapon of mass destruction. I think we would have to have a rather longer discussion about whether that, for example, might work in relation to a failed state or a country like Iraq that, for example, places the lives of its own citizens at little value and might be prepared to contemplate taking on a nuclear power like the United Kingdom and accept the consequences.’

Hoon said it was unclear whether ‘states of concern’ like Iraq could be deterred by nuclear weapons.

Knight came back: ‘Do you think that states such as, let us say, Iraq – which seems to be on our lips....’ Hoon interrupted: ‘On yours, anyway.’ Knight continued: ‘It seemed to stumble across yours. Do you think such a state would be deterred by our deterrent from using weapons of mass destruction against our forces in the field?’

The conversation has gone from ‘using nuclear deterrence to protect the landmass of the UK from ballistic missiles’ to ‘using nuclear deterrence to protect British military forces sent on expeditions around the world from chemical or biological weapons, as well as from nuclear attack.’

Hoon replied, saying he was ‘much less confident’ about nuclear deterrence with countries like Iraq: ‘we cannot rule out the possibility that such states would be willing to sacrifice their own people in order to make that kind of gesture’.

In other words, according to Hoon, governments of countries like Iraq might be willing to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against British forces on the battlefield, even if there was a high likelihood that Britain might respond with a devastating nuclear attack that would ‘sacrifice’ the ‘people’ of that country.


Knight continued, asking about Hoon’s ‘confidence’ – he had said he was ‘much less confident’ about deterrence in that situation: ‘Is it a confidence about whether or not they believe you would use them or confidence about whether or not they would care about whether you use them?’

Hoon replied: ‘They can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.’

This was a very important exchange.

Hoon had brought up Iraq, he had broadened the topic to nuclear deterrence against ‘weapons of mass destruction’, not just Knight’s ‘ballistic missiles’ or deterrence against nuclear weapons.

When Knight asked about using nuclear deterrence to protect British troops on the battlefield against weapons of mass destruction used by states like Iraq, Hoon did not rule out this option, he discussed it seriously, in a way that showed he had been thinking about this possibility.

Hoon emphasised that Iraq should be ‘absolutely confident’ that Britain would actually fire its nuclear weapons ‘in the right conditions’. This did seem to mean that British nuclear weapons would be fired ‘if Iraqi chemical or biological weapons are used on British troops on the battlefield’.

The headline of Hugo Young's 6 June 2002 article for the Guardian: 'Hoon's talk of pre-emptive strikes could be catastrophic'


A few days later, on 24 March, Hoon appeared on ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby show and, according to a Guardian report, ‘insisted that the government “reserved the right” to use nuclear weapons if Britain or British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons’ (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Bush’s nuke bandwagon’, Guardian, 27 March 2002).

Hoon was pressed about his ‘recent comments concerning the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iraq’ by Labour MP Malcolm Savidge in the House of Commons in a debate on 29 April.

Hoon said only: ‘ultimately and in conditions of extreme self-defence, nuclear weapons would have to be used.’

That didn’t clear matters up much.

Another Labour MP, Diane Abbott, pressed the defence secretary for an explanation of what these conditions of ‘extreme self-defence’ might be.

Hoon refused to be specific. He just said that it was ‘important to point out that the government have nuclear weapons available to them, and that – in certain specified conditions to which I have referred – we would be prepared to use them.’

Hoon had not described any ‘certain specified conditions’ in the Commons debate. On the other hand, he had said on TV that the British government ‘reserved the right’ to use nuclear weapons if Britain or British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons. He’d given that same impression in his evidence to the defence select committee on 20 March.

These were very public nuclear threats against Iraq.

A few months later, Guardian columnist Hugo Young wrote one of the very few mainstream media comments on these public remarks by the defence secretary. He called his article: ‘Hoon’s talk of pre-emptive strikes could be catastrophic’ (Guardian, 6 June 2002).


As I will be explaining in my PN talk on 31 January, these threats were not a one-off. They were not just a panicky response in 2002 to the possibility of going to war against a dictator whose armed forces had used chemical weapons very effectively against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War.

This Labour policy of making nuclear threats against a non-nuclear weapon state in 2002 was actually a continuation of core British nuclear doctrine going back to the beginning of the nuclear age, and that same position continues to be British nuclear doctrine today.

‘Military doctrine’ means a set of principles that have been established to be followed in certain situations, an authoritative guide to action, particularly for complex operations.

One aspect of Britain’s nuclear doctrine was set out in the respected military journal Jane’s International Defense Review in September 1994, explaining a policy announced by the Conservative defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind the year before.

Journalist David Miller set out four possible situations in which Britain might fire off a single Trident missile carrying a single nuclear warhead (‘Tactical Trident’).

The first was a conflict involving large-scale forces, ‘such as the 1990-91 Gulf War’, to reply to an enemy nuclear strike.

‘Secondly,’ Miller wrote, ‘they could be used in a similar setting, but to reply to enemy use of weapons of mass destruction, such as bacteriological or chemical weapons, for which the British possess no like-for-like retaliatory capability.’

This is exactly what Hoon was talking about in 2002.

The third and fourth options were the ‘demonstrative’ role, to warn a country off ‘its present course of action’, and the ‘punitive’ role, ‘where a country has committed an act, despite specific warnings that to do so would incur a nuclear strike.’