Late in the evening of November 27, the US and Russia appear to have reached an agreement to once again roll over existing sanctions on Iraq for six months, by which time Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes the two powers will have agreed on a version of his proposed “smart sanctions.” The December 3 deadline to renew the UN oil for food program, under which Iraq is allowed to sell its oil on the world market to import needed civilian goods, brings the familiar rhetoric, mutual accusations and rejections that have accompanied most renewals since 1997 when the program began. But this time, the stakes are higher, and the outcome is linked to broader uncertainties about future US policy in the Middle East.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, reporting to the Security Council on November 19, highlighted the UN’s continuing concerns about the way the oil for food program works. While he argues that the program did make a difference to Iraqi citizens, cumbersome bureaucratic processes, “inordinate delays” or refusals on the part of Iraq to grant visas and delays in clearance of imports for the program in the northern, Kurdish-controlled governorates have all limited the effectiveness of the humanitarian program. At the same time, the holds placed on contract applications by the Security Council’s 661 committee (primarily at the behest of the US and the UK) remained at an “unacceptably” high level, with a total value of over $4 billion. Interruptions by Iraq of oil sales at mid-year and lower international oil prices have caused a shortfall in the amounts of money available to the humanitarian program.

The September 11 attacks have altered relations internationally and within the Middle East, but they have not necessarily produced consensus among the Security Council’s Permanent Five members and interested states in the Middle East on what to do about Iraq. Despite the US-Russian rapprochement on sanctions, hawks in the Bush administration still advocate military action.

“Smart Sanctions” Deferred

The Security Council’s likely rollover of existing sanctions within the next few days means delaying the reintroduction of a British draft resolution to reshape economic sanctions into so-called “smart sanctions.” The proposal was withdrawn at the last renewal of the oil for food program in June, when Russia indicated that it would use its veto against any such resolution.

The “smart sanctions” proposals, pushed vigorously by Powell, aimed to free up civilian trade while tightening arms controls and clamping down on international smuggling. This resolution represented an attempt by the US and UK to break the international impasse on Iraq policy that has continued since the withdrawal of weapons inspectors from Iraq and Operation Desert Fox, the ensuing bombing campaign, in December 1998. Since that time, the international community has failed to reach consensus on any new steps, while the US and UK have acted alone to intensify bombing in the northern and southern no-fly zones. “Smart sanctions” were also seen as a way to prevent Iraq from profiting from expanded trade.

The Iraqi government clearly prefers the present status quo. The policy logjam of the last few years has allowed Iraq to consolidate its trade relations and bring greater economic influence to bear on its neighbors. Iraq’s oil sales had reached $18 billion by 2000, up from $4 billion in 1997. Baghdad objects to the UK proposal’s retention of the UN escrow account, the 661 committee and the UN prerogative to determine to which companies Iraq can sell its oil. Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also wary of “smart sanctions,” fearing that they would disrupt their lucrative legitimate and illegitimate commerce, along with partners inside government-controlled Iraq, with Turkey and other countries.

Neighboring states — Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as well as Jordan and Turkey — have a growing stake in trade with Iraq and are reluctant to accept tighter controls. Jordan and Turkey have long benefited from the ambiguity of US and UK policy over how far to turn a blind eye to infringements of sanctions by its “friends” in the region. Since the critical meeting between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin earlier in November produced no agreement on Iraq, the Bush administration is evidently resigned to deferring sanctions revision. However, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer emphasized the need to define sanctions “more tightly and narrowly” on November 27.

Unresolved Debate

After September 11, Iraq is squarely in the sights of US hawks, notably those in the Bush administration who chafe at the “unfinished business” in Iraq since 1991. Policymakers who want a much more aggressive military stance on Iraq see the “war on terrorism” as an opportunity to push for “regime change,” or proactive attempts to topple Saddam Hussein. For those policymakers who are reluctant to commit to military action — especially given the continuing uncertainties about the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and the fate of Osama bin Laden — the new political climate offered the possibility of a renewed attempt to change sanctions policy. Short of that, rolling over the oil for food program allows the US time to settle ongoing disputes within the administration on future military action, without immediately jeopardizing its Arab coalition.

The Republican right in Congress and elements in the Bush administration, of whom the best known is Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have upped their pressure since September to “go after” Saddam Hussein. Bush has not closed off the option of military action against Iraq, while Powell has been more cautious. The issue, for the administration, is less whether regime change is a good idea than whether it is achievable and if it should be a priority for the US at present.

By all accounts, supporters of regime change have been greatly heartened by developments in Afghanistan. Especially in the Department of Defense, analysts think that bombing has worked in bringing down an unwanted regime, though less euphoria is evident in other parts of government. But recently several other, less challenging candidates for US military action — notably Somalia, Yemen and Sudan — have been named as places that harbor al-Qaeda and related networks.

Seeking Justification

If Iraq were chosen as a target, either in the coming months or further down the line, the US would need some form of justification, given international skepticism and opposition. But the circumstantial evidence connecting Iraq to al-Qaeda and/or the anthrax attacks has not convinced doubters, who so far have included even Britain, staunchest supporter of the US. The main evidence so far relates to hijacker Muhammad Atta’s meeting in Prague with Colonel Muhammad Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani, allegedly a senior Iraqi intelligence officer, and the so-called “hijackers’ training camp” at Salman Pak in Iraq.

Seeing the weakness of this evidence, hawks increasingly look for justifications in Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction, including the possibility that Iraq might use or might have used biological weapons. Bush’s November 26 comments on Iraq emphasized the demand that Iraq should allow UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. A week ago, Undersecretary of State John Bolton singled out Iraq, along with North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iran and Sudan, as states developing biological weapons: “The US strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no UN inspections to improve all phases of its offensive biological weapons program.” Until recently, public discussion of sanctions policy has made few references to renewed inspections by UNMOVIC, the revamped UN inspectorate.

Iraq has vowed to reject any renewed effort to get the weapons inspectors of UNMOVIC into Iraq — a subject still under discussion in New York. It seems likely that most policymakers in the US are skeptical of ever returning the inspectors, but efforts to revive this issue, invoking Resolution 1284 (1999) or 687 (1991) might create more international acceptance of military action.

The more general claim that Saddam Hussein remains highly dangerous and evil may also be used as a justification. National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice stated recently: “We do not need the events of September 11 to tell us that Saddam Hussein is a very dangerous man, a threat to his people, the region and the US.” This argument runs counter to years of US assurances that Saddam Hussein is being “contained” and hence is unlikely to convince most other states of the need for military action. A further possibility would be to hope that Iraq itself takes some provocative action—such as advancing above the thirty-sixth parallel into areas under Kurdish control or toward Kuwait. For the moment at least, Iraq’s leadership is keeping a low profile, undoubtedly expecting attacks. Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein has raised again the question of relations with the three governorates under Kurdish control.

Hawkish Options

The lack of international consensus for expanding the war to encompass Iraq does not mean that US hawks will abandon the push for military options altogether. The least dramatic military option would be to increase sorties over the no-fly zones and bombing attacks, despite the proven ineffectiveness of this strategy. If regime change is the goal, a major air war akin to Desert Fox, with bombing focused on regime targets, has been proposed, along with establishing bases within Iraq for elements of the Iraqi opposition.

Some hawks have gone so far as to suggest a US ground invasion of the southern oilfields—reviving an Iraqi National Congress (INC) proposal from the mid-1990s for a “no-drive zone” in southern Iraq. Clearly this would be a high-risk strategy. Another similar approach would be to establish a US military presence in the Kurdish-controlled north and conduct a bombing campaign in the hope of causing the regime to collapse as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey would likely launch the campaign, perhaps requiring substantial inducements to Turkey, which might also be nervous about possible use of Iraqi Kurdish fighters as proxies. Indeed, some Iraqi Kurds themselves are said to be uneasy with this idea.

Little Rethinking

Whatever the pretext, if the US were to attack Iraq with the aim of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the concerns of the UK and others are with the impact on alliances in the Middle East. Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia have already made it clear that they would find attacks on Iraq unacceptable. US efforts to intervene in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could also be jeopardized by war with Iraq.

The tendency to focus on military action rather than political strategy is very marked among the protagonists of regime change. The question that plagued US efforts to remove Saddam Hussein since 1991 — who would succeed him — has not been fully confronted. On the right, acceptance of the INC has replaced the search for a pliable general to rule Iraq in Saddam’s stead. But the INC’s track record leads many to doubt whether this uneasy coalition could hold together, especially in the face of unpredictable political currents that might emerge within Iraq if the Ba’thist regime fell.

The sense of unfinished business in Iraq, which undoubtedly haunts members of this administration to varying degrees, touches on broader issues than the fall of Saddam Hussein. So far, September 11 has not brought any serious rethinking of US policy in the Gulf region. Would political change in Iraq be accompanied by a new US approach to the oil states of the Gulf, including both Iran and Iraq? It remains to be seen whether the US will question long-term alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, given their implicit connivance in the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda through both official and unofficial financial support. Finally, the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in UN Security Council Resolution 687 was linked to the goal of regional disarmament. No progress has been made in the last decade. The US war against terrorism seems unlikely to further this cause.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Iraq: Rolling Over Sanctions, Raising the Stakes," Middle East Report Online, November 28, 2001.

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