Sir Jeremy Greenstock: 'There is good and unforged evidence that Iraq sought materials from Niger'

The Monday Interview: British Ambassador to the United Nations
Click to follow

"I am not doing the dodgy dossier, I'm afraid."

Sir Jeremy Greenstock is reflecting on his five years as British ambassador to the United Nations, marked above all by the failed effort this spring to secure a resolution explicitly authorising the war in Iraq.

And it would be a shame to spoil Sir Jeremy's mood. He has just been rescued from the retirement that would have been forced upon him by the Foreign Office at the end of July, when he turns 60 and leaves New York. The Prime Minister has appointed him to be his special representative on Iraq alongside the main American man there, Paul Bremer. So we leave the dossier alone - for a while.

What is remarkable about Sir Jeremy, as he sits for our interview in the 28th-floor mission close to UN headquarters, is his self-assuredness, even after the maelstrom of Iraq in the Security Council. Maybe it is a trait common to diplomats. He is not even sure that the collapse of negotiations for a resolution in March, which triggered war, should be seen as a failure.

For one thing, it may be that confronting Saddam Hussein was simply too much for the UN. "Every couple of decades there is a 'perfect storm' of some kind in international politics and the UN can't handle that, in the sense that nation states weren't able to handle it," he says, adding with marvellous British understatement: "We have had a row." Indeed. He says he first smelt trouble in January, when President Jacques Chirac of France reacted to French press reports that he was readying his navy for action in the Gulf. He in effect said never. "We realised then that we were probably in for quite a hard time," the ambassador explains. On 17 March he found himself in the basement of the UN telling the press that negotiations in the Security Council to pass a resolution for war had failed. The first missiles flew days later.

Sir Jeremy comforts himself with what has happened since. "We plunged down, but we have crawled back out again." He bases this on the agreement reached in the council in early May, just six weeks after the end of the war proper, to adopt resolution 1483, which defined the role of America and Britain as the "occupying power" in Iraq for at least a year. He calls it one of the most satisfying moments of his career.

But it is hard to play down how bad things were before 17 March. Britain and America needed nine votes out of 15 in the council for their resolution to pass. By Sir Jeremy's own admission, they were only ever sure of four. In his press statement he put some of the blame on France, because it had anyway consistently threatened to veto any text. The French ambassador upbraided him privately afterwards.

"Most members were really reluctant to be part of any explicit authorisation of the use of force," Sir Jeremy recalls. "Moreover, almost none were ready to accept the British and US evidence that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction. They wanted Hans Blix, the chief UN inspector, to find the smoking gun; but, of course, he never did."

Sir Jeremy is still bothered by this. "I said to them [the other council members], 'Look, we are asking you to make a judgement with us, but we have done all the work. You have not made any effort really to find out what Saddam is doing. You won't take it from us. But you won't do the work yourselves'."

Didn't they have a point, given the absence of any evidence still today? To this, Sir Jeremy urges patience. "In due course, with the interviews being made and so forth, the story will be told. Things were moved every 12 hours. Things were going to private homes. Things were being buried". And these things, he intimates, will turn up yet. But what about the "Niger connection" and the claim made by the allies that Iraq sought materials (yellow cake) from the West African country for uranium enrichment? That evidence - a letter - was forged, so we know it was false. "You have got that wrong," Sir Jeremy replies firmly. "That forged document was never seen by British intelligence ... We never knew where it came from and we never examined it."

And the ambassador is adamant that Iraq sought yellow cake from Niger in the Eighties and has been "back for more since 1999". He adds: "There is ... perfectly usable evidence on that - evidence apart from the forged document." He does at least allow that the discovery of the forged letter "was embarrassing".

Embarrassing in the same way as Britain's dodgy dossier? Sir Jeremy tries to steer clear, but cannot quite. What he does do is distance himself.

"We didn't use it" in New York, he says, because "we based ourselves more on the [earlier] September dossier". He goes on: "The real reason for the dossier was to get a certain amount of stuff out to the press and the public, but we had already used that stuff in the Security Council - not the dossier as such, but the material that went into the dossier. I never really read it, actually." So he is not about to criticise his own bosses directly.

How about Mr Blix? "He was in the camp of those who wanted hard evidence and wouldn't just accept it from our intelligence," says Sir Jeremy. "That's fair enough, but he set quite high standards, which were not related, in our view, as to the probability of what was going on in Iraq."

And what of the Americans themselves? Weren't there moments when Sir Jeremy privately despaired of their more extravagant public declarations? Somehow, the name of the American Secretary of Defence comes to his lips. "When Rumsfeld asked, 'Do we actually need the Brits?' [as he did during one Pentagon briefing before the war], that wasn't terribly helpful," the ambassador concedes. And there was something else. "It was noticeable in UN circles, when we all talked about it, that the US range of reasons [for military action] extended rather more widely than the British ones did."

Sir Jeremy professes reluctance to speak about what is going on in Iraq now, because those who are struggling to contain the lawlessness will soon be his colleagues. But he agrees that the allies, including the Americans, appeared unprepared for it. "We had thought that after the war the whole machine was going to be ready to go on police and security - the full coalition machine, the American machine. I think perhaps the war ended sooner than they anticipated."

Yet, for now, what most occupies the ambassador's mind is dispensing with the notion that the collapse of the second resolution constituted a failure of British diplomacy. Britain was following a consistent course from the start. It would do what it could to produce the conditions in which the UN would summon enough unity and persuasive power to make Saddam come clean without the need for force.

"The Prime Minister knew what he wanted to do, what he needed to do. But he went on trying to avoid the use of force ... He didn't want to use military force and he hadn't decided finally until we failed in that effort."

In other words there was Plan A (avoid war) and Plan B (go to war), and both were legitimate. (And, Sir Jeremy repeatedly notes, both were legal.) So, does he never suffer nightmares about the moment he took to the microphones on 17 March, in effect signalling that diplomacy had been split asunder over Iraq?

"I am not accepting that that in itself was a failure. It was the lowest moment in an overall saga, which I feel the UK handled pretty well," he replies.

The CV

BORN 27 July 1943

EDUCATED Harrow School and Oxford University

1969 West African department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

1970 Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, Lebanon

1972 Second secretary, Britishe embassy, Dubai

1974 Private secretary to the ambassador, British embassy, Washington

1983 Commercial counsellor, British embassy, Jeddah (from 1985 Riyadh)

1987 Head of Chancery, British embassy, Paris

1990 Assistant under secretary of state (Western and Southern Europe), FCO

1994 Minister, British embassy, Washington

1995 Deputy under secretary of state, FCO

1996 Political director, FCO

1998 Permanent representative, UK Mission to the UN, New York