Paul Vallely: Blair's glinting eye turns to Iran

A glimpse of the old messianic mission returned when the former prime minister appeared before Chilcot

Share
Related Topics

Until the last 10 minutes, there was little drama in Tony Blair's testimony to the Chilcot inquiry into the lessons that should be learnt from the inglorious business of Britain's connivance in the American invasion of Iraq. But then one woman whispered a single sentence from a few feet behind the former prime minister.

Like most of the population, I made up my mind about Tony Blair long ago. What has emerged from the largely underwhelming inquiry set up by Gordon Brown when British troops finally left Basra in 2009 has only reinforced existing prejudices of Blair detractors and apologists. That was, presumably, why so many of those who Twittered through Blair's four hours in the not-so-hot seat on Friday were preoccupied with things like whether the ex-PM had had his eyebrows shaped to look more arched and evil.

From the outset, I had grave reservations about the war, and yet I have never doubted Tony Blair's good faith. It is perfectly possible for the man to be wrong and yet not be a liar. The real world is not binary. Nor do there seem to be right-or-wrong answers to many of the 105 detailed questions that Sir John Chilcot and his process-obsessed colleagues sent to Blair ahead of the hearing.

Blair had explanations, of sorts, for most of the key points. Was the Cabinet properly informed? Of course, though it was more concerned at the political fallout of going to war alongside a right-wing president than it was about the reliability of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Not all cabinet members were in on all the planning, but then Margaret Thatcher hadn't even included her chancellor in her war cabinet. And most of the Government's position was anyway public. The then leader of the Commons Robin Cook was well enough informed to have resigned.

Asked when Blair first gave an unbreakable commitment to George Bush that Britain would back the US in military action, he implied that the undertaking came in phases: when he told the US president "you can count on us", he added "but here are the difficulties". He offered similar ambiguity on whether the question of regime change, illegal under international law, was a decisive motive for war.

And on the legality of the invasion he managed to confess that he had disregarded the attorney general's warning that attacking Iraq would be illegal, without further UN backing. But he insisted that he did so because he was confident that Lord Goldsmith would overturn that "provisional" judgement once he knew the full history of the negotiations. And the attorney general did change his mind after the detail of that process was spelled out to him when he went to Washington.

Those in the grip of Blair rage will find none of that convincing, and will continue to look for flaws and inconsistencies. Those better disposed to Blair will probably give him the benefit of the doubt. Where he did look on wobblier ground, for all his confidence and fluency, was in his dismissal of the lack of adequate forethought on how to handle the aftermath of the war. That plunged Iraq into years of chaos with 150,000 people dead, according to International Red Cross figures, and two million refugees still afraid to return to their homes.

"We thought that Iran would want to promote stability," he said blithely. Clearly he failed to foresee that Iran might want to intervene on behalf of Iraq's Shia majority, for decades under the thumb of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime. "Our understanding of this is far better now than it was then," he said, dismissing as hindsight another point made by the panel. "That's far too stark a comment made with the benefit of hindsight," he said on a third occasion.

There was indignation from Sir John Chilcot about the fact that the inquiry has been given a sequence of frank private letters, handwritten by Blair to Bush in the run-up to the war, but then told that they cannot quote from them in their final report. They contain "important, and often unique, insights" into Blair's thinking and commitments, Chilcot has pronounced. Yet the ruling that they must not be published – made by Britain's most senior civil servant, Sir Gus O'Donnell, for fear that that might stifle frankness between the British prime minister and the American president in future – seems prudent, and will not inhibit Chilcot from drawing pointed conclusions from the documents.

For four hours, I dutifully watched all this, feeling that no more had been proved than Tony Blair's misplaced optimism, casual carelessness and occasional naivety in the presence of great power. But then he got to Iran. Iran, you will recall, he and George Bush thought would want to promote stability when they were planning the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

How things change. Iran today, Blair told Chilcot, is negative, destabilising, supportive of terrorist groups and doing everything it can to impede the Middle East peace process. It has spurned the hand of friendship President Obama extended to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009. It is undermining the political process in Iraq because "it's an existential threat to Iranian theocracy for there to be progress towards democracy" in the country next door. And it is threatening the peace of the Middle East with its urge to develop nuclear weapons. It was, he said, a "looming challenge".

The mood had shifted. The passion had returned to his voice and the evangelical messianic glint to his eye. It was back to the future, and not just with Iran but with al-Qa'ida. There was a temptation to see that as "an alien encrustment, a perversion of Islam", he said, but it grows from a global ideology with much deeper roots. It is part of "a narrative which sees the West as fundamentally hostile to Islam, a narrative that has far greater reach than many of us would like to accept".

That was when we saw that Tony Blair has learnt nothing. He is still gripped by a Manichean dualism which sees the world divided between good and evil. Reality is rather messier. For all George Bush's rhetoric about the axis of evil, Shia Tehran has given very limited support to the Sunni extremists in al-Qa'ida. Iran has no long-term interest in promoting anarchy in Iraq; rather it wants a stable and prosperous market next door for its goods and services, and it wants an end to al-Qa'ida attacks on Shia communities in Iraq. Neither British nor Iranian interests are served by Blair's misrepresentation of Tehran as some unalloyed threat. He did not regret the decision to go to war, Tony Blair concluded, though of course he did have deep and profound regret for the loss of life.

"Too late," chorused the dead soldiers' mothers who sat in the public gallery. "A year too late."

And then came the whisper: "You don't mean it. Your lies killed our son." For some, on both sides, this war will never be over.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home