Concluding almost a year of diplomatic wrangling, the UN Security Council has agreed to revise UN sanctions on Iraq when the eleventh phase of the oil for food program ends on May 29. Under the oil for food program, Iraq is allowed to sell its oil on the world market to import needed civilian goods. The changes to the sanctions system, passed by a unanimous vote on May 14, are more modest than the range of “smart sanctions” proposed by the the US and the UK in 2001. Russian backing for the proposal will be presented as a triumph for the US, which has sought to fine-tune the sanctions regime over the objections of Russia and other countries that only lifting sanctions entirely can revitalize an Iraqi economy sapped by 12 years of international isolation. Since September 11, however, the maintenance of sanctions has become something of a sideshow for the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq.
Too Little, Too Late?
The key element in the new arrangements is the Goods Review List provided for in paragraph 2 of UNSC Resolution 1382, passed in November 2001. Items specified on this list, defined as for military or dual use, are to be separated from humanitarian goods. Russia’s agreement to accept this list, after protracted negotiations, cleared the way for implementation of the new “smarter” sanctions. The US sweetened the pot for Russia by removing holds on over $200 million of Russian contracts with Iraq in late March. By the rules of the 661 Committee which presently scrutinizes orders for humanitarian goods, all Security Council members are allowed to query and hold up such orders. About 90 percent of the $5 billion worth of contracts currently on hold are being blocked by the US and Great Britain.
The new proposals are expected to end this system of 661 Committee scrutiny of humanitarian goods. Under the new system, contracts containing goods on the Goods Review List will be reviewed by the UN Office of the Iraq Program (OIP)—which administers oil for food. This office would then send the contracts to the UN Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which head up efforts to prevent Iraq from obtaining banned weapons. In turn, these offices can refer contracts considered objectionable to the 661 Committee for rejection or passage.
A proposal to tighten up on regional smuggling—key to earlier drafts of the “smart sanctions” resolution—has been dropped. Neighboring states, including Syria, which is currently a Security Council member, are unlikely to give up their expanded commercial contacts with Baghdad and resisted any attempts to restrict this trade. The State Department estimates that Iraq reaps $2.5 billion a year from smuggling oil outside the oil for food program.
The imposition of “smarter” sanctions has arguably come as too little, too late. As the Iraqi regime is well-adapted to sanctions, both in terms of political control and its regional and international networks of trade, clandestine contacts and money laundering, the new measures are unlikely to exact a significant tax on regime coffers.
Relaxation of the policy of holds, plus continued smuggling, may increase the volume of humanitarian goods available in Iraq if the government choses to sell more oil. Iraq’s stoppage of oil sales from April 8 to May 8 led, by the end of April, to a revenue loss to the oil for food program estimated by the UN at $1.2 billion. However, in the short term at least, the revised approvals system could create new bottlenecks if the OIP, UNMOVIC and the IAEA have not developed mechanisms to cope with the new workload.
Toward Regime Change
In the last few years, the US has become frustrated that sanctions had come to share the blame in international opinion for Iraq’s public health and malnutrition crises throughout the 1990s. The motive of the US and UK for promoting “smarter” sanctions in mid-2001 was not just to regain the higher moral ground by claiming that they would improve humanitarian conditions, but, more critically, to ensure that the sanctions regime remained in place. In March 2001, early in the Bush administration’s term, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of his concern to “rescue” the sanctions policy that was “falling apart.” He later claimed that the US had “snapped back the consensus in the Permanent Five and Security Council as a whole on the continued need for sanctions.”
Powell’s push for smart sanctions was seen as the State Department’s riposte to the strident arguments of hawks in the Defense Department that regime change—toppling Saddam Hussein’s government—should be the centerpiece of US policy in the Middle East. Before September 11, those who advocated regime change ahead of all other policy priorities were still a minority voice in the Bush administration. But since that time, regime change has become the focus of presidential policy, and speculation in Washington has focused on when rather than whether the US will move militarily against Iraq.
Ambiguities Old and New
In this context, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s discussions with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri in March and early May on the renewal of weapons inspections highlight a new ambiguity in US policy. At the previous round of talks held in New York on March 7, Sabri posed a series of questions to Annan, including whether US threats of military action for Iraqi non-compliance with inspections were legal under UN resolutions. In the second, still inconclusive, round, Iraq also raised broader issues, including the lifting of sanctions, the US-UK no-fly zones and the US saber-rattling. Sabri said Iraq wants inspections to be time-limited, and to lead to the lifting of sanctions. Annan called for an early resumption of talks, to avoid spinning out the discussions.
Previously the ambiguity in US policy was that key players would not say that if Iraq complied with inspections and was given a clean bill of health, sanctions would be lifted. When Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2001 that if Iraq let weapons inspectors in, the US “may look at lifting sanctions,” he continued the Clinton administration’s strategy of using sanctions as a form of punitive control and containment, rather than enforcement of specific requirements on Iraq.
Today the Bush administration, while not identifying one particular strategy, clearly speaks of action—unilateral if necessary—to end Saddam Hussein’s regime, without further reference to the UN. It is not clear whether Iraq’s compliance with weapons inspections would be sufficient to trigger a withdrawal of the threat of military action. Recent comments suggest not.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has predictably reiterated his skepticism, first expressed in 1998 during the Clinton administration, as to whether weapons inspections in Iraq can ever be effective under Hussein. On May 5, Powell perpetuated the ambiguity, saying that the issue of inspectors is a “separate and distinct and different” matter from the US position on Saddam’s leadership. “The United States reserves its option to do whatever it believes might be appropriate to see if there can be a regime change,” Powell said. “US policy is that, regardless of what the inspectors do, the people of Iraq and the people of the region would be better off with a different regime in Baghdad.”
Weapons Inspections and/or War
In early months of Bush administration, the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was not near the top of the foreign policy agenda. Revival of the issue after September 11 appeared primarily to be a pretext for settling unfinished business. Iraq’s links to al-Qaeda have proved too tenuous to include Iraq directly in the “war on terrorism.” Most recently, the FBI itself has raised doubts about the veracity of the story that Muhammad Atta met an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. Hence the weapons issue has now taken center stage, with the US invoking UN resolutions and hoping to rally international support on this basis.
The Iraqis so far have chosen to appear cooperative, but without actually agreeing to accept the inspectors back, presumably hoping that delay may bring some advantage. The administration appears to be relying on the Iraqis’ refusal, or alternatively, hitches in the process of inspection, which are likely to occur if UNMOVIC returned to work in Iraq.
The lack of clarity in Bush administration pronouncements inevitably signals to the Iraqi leadership that even if they were to comply with WMD inspections, the US would still try to oust them. As in the past, moving the goalposts on sanctions and arms control leaves the Iraqi government with a reason not to comply—citing a “no-win” situation. Furthermore, the leadership’s long-held belief in the usefulness of chemical and biological weapons would suggest they would be even more likely to conceal and try to retain them if they were faced with a major attack.
For the US, the worst-case scenario would be for the UN inspectors to declare Iraq free of banned weapons and therefore call for the lifting of sanctions. Fear of this eventuality may be behind recent attacks on the arms control record of Hans Blix, formerly head of the IAEA and now of UNMOVIC. Asked to investigate him by Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, doyen of the regime change crowd, the CIA found that Blix had conducted inspections within the IAEA’s parameters. But Wolfowitz’s approach fits with the Bush administration policy of attacking or removing unwelcome chairpersons of international bodies—working on human rights, climate change or chemical weapons—with which the US has disagreements. Blix, for his part, has presented a firm view of UNMOVIC’s work, stating that Iraq would need to give the inspectors hard proof that its WMD had been destroyed. At the same time, he has held out the possibility that if Iraq cooperated fully, sanctions could be lifted within a year.
The scale of projected US military action is still being loudly debated. Bush is still publicly hedging his bets, with the White House speaking of “multiple contingency plans” but no decisions having been made. The high levels of publicity for a large-scale attack, so far in advance of action—now apparently deferred to early 2003—may be intended to rally opposition within Iraq, especially in the army, encouraging a coup or large-scale defections, though the Pentagon and the CIA appear to have ruled out reliance on a coup. However, it may be just as much intended for a US audience—to show that the administration is still vigorously pursuing its enemies. The $48 billion increase in defense spending for 2003 includes $10 billion for unspecified contingencies in the war on terrorism, which will need to be accounted for.
The timing of any possible military action is being dictated not by the dynamics of discussions with Iraq on weapons inspectors, but by the escalating Israel-Palestine crisis that has thrown into question earlier US predictions of military action in late 2002. Whether, after so much public debate, the US can form any kind of “coalition of the willing” by early in 2003 remains to be seen. Any longer delay would risk allowing conflict to spill over into a presidential election year without a victory to report.
On the other hand, Iraq’s efforts to capitalize on the Palestinians’ plight by persuading other oil producers to join its suspension of oil sales have drawn a blank. Meanwhile, according to recent defectors linked to the Iraqi Officers’ Movement, Iraq is importing arms from eastern Europe via Syria in the face of the US threat, also indicating the improvement in relations between the two countries.
If the Iraqis agree to the return of weapons inspectors, the US will have a still more difficult task in convincing either Arab states or Europe to go along with or actively support an attack. The Palestinian crisis seems to be hardening popular attitudes in the Middle East against the US, spooking Arab regimes about appearing too close to US priorities. Crown Prince Abdallah stated explicitly that if Iraq accepted the inspectors, then Saudi Arabia would not “see any reason for any attacks.” Such a confluence of events would reveal how far the unilateralists in the Bush administration will go to put their theories to a practical test.