Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 177

and British efforts to maintain the current sanctions regime against Iraq have suffered new blows in recent days as both the French and Russian governments have permitted airline flights to Baghdad. For the Russians, the landing of a Tupolev-154 at Saddam International Airport on September 23 marked the second flight of its kind in less than a week. A French flight landed in Baghdad one day earlier. The flights appear to be part of a broader Muscovite-Parisienne move to challenge the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. News sources have suggested that Russia and France are also likely to step up pressure in the coming weeks to cut the compensation fund for victims of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and to thereby delay a US$16 billion payout to Kuwait’s oil company. The moves by Moscow and Paris come as the Iraqi government itself increases its efforts to weaken the UN sanctions regime. Baghdad appears to have been emboldened by both the manner in which rising oil prices have brought millions more in revenue into its state coffers, and by concerns around the world that Iraq could disrupt stability in the Persian Gulf and push oil prices even higher (Washington Post, September 21). Not surprisingly, the Russian and French flights appear to have stoked Iraqi confidence in its ability to defy the United States and further erode the sanctions regime.

Protests by the United States in Britain–Washington lashed out in particular at the French flight–have had little impact on policymakers in Moscow and Paris. As they did after permitting last week’s flight to Baghdad (see the Monitor, September 19), Russian authorities are continuing to insist that the relevant sanctions resolution does not explicitly ban passenger flights to Iraq. As explained by Russian UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov, “there are no restrictions on passenger flights, whatsoever.” Cargo flights, Lavrov continued, “are possible only with the permission from the Security Council sanctions committee, but passenger flights are not prohibited by the resolutions, so you have only to notify the sanctions committee” (Reuters, September 20). Indeed, Moscow has apparently done at least that prior to each of the Russian flights to Baghdad–submitted notifications to the sanctions committee. The United States, Britain and some other council member countries were reportedly particularly upset at France because it authorized the September 22 flight to Baghdad without waiting for approval by the sanctions committee (Reuters, September 21; AFP, September 22).

However, Moscow appears to have fudged at least one key detail of its two flights to Baghdad, and on that point the Russians have drawn some criticism from council members. The point in question involves the inclusion of Russian oil executives on both flights. Some members of the sanctions committee have apparently complained that they were not properly informed of this fact prior to giving authorization for the flights to Baghdad. Moscow denies this, saying that its passenger lists included the oil company officials (Reuters, September 20). That, in itself, appears to be begging the larger point, however; namely, that the sanctions do prohibit business transactions between Iraq and foreign countries. Moscow has included some humanitarian aid on each of the flights, but that appears to have been little more than a fig lead to cover the activities of the oil officials.

Indeed, Yuri Shafranik, the president of Russia’s Central Fuel Company, a former energy minister and the head of the Russian business delegation, appeared to make no bones about the intentions of the oil officials to talk business with their Iraqi counterparts. “We are going to conduct talks and point out the projects for the future and implement them,” he told reporters. Shafranik also said that the Kremlin backed the flight to Iraq and that there would be no let-up to its campaign to get the UN sanctions lifted as soon as possible. Moreover, prior to his departure, Shafranik made clear to Russia’s NTV that Moscow sees oil dealings with Iraq as essential to Russia’s economy over the next few years. He suggested that high oil prices had been largely responsible for sustaining Russia’s state budget over the past two years, but that this windfall could not be expected to last indefinitely. “I am simply saying that, if today we don’t work intelligently with Iraqi oil and with Iraq, the budgets of 2000 or 2001 will be our last good budgets,” Shafranik was quoted as saying (AP, September 22; NTV, September 23).

Over the past several years some Russian reports have suggested that Russian oil companies signed energy development deals of various sorts with the Iraqi government worth up to US$20 billion. But those deals can be fulfilled only after the sanctions are lifted. Moscow would also like to see sanctions lifted so that Baghdad can earn the revenues necessary to repay its Soviet-era debt of some US$8 billion to Russia. And there are undoubtedly hopes that an Iraq freed from sanctions would also turn to Moscow to buy military hardware to rebuild its armed forces. For all these reasons–not to mention traditional Soviet-Iraqi ties and the desire to reestablish Moscow as a player in the Persian Gulf–many political figures in Russia have long called for a resuscitation of Russian-Iraqi ties, even at the cost of violating the UN sanctions. For its part, Iraqi leaders have also stepped up their pressure on Moscow (and Paris) to move beyond declarations of support for Baghdad and to demonstrate their friendship in more concrete ways (see the Monitor, July 1, 9, 1999). Recent developments appear to have borne out Moscow’s intention to do just that.

Russian actions in this area apparently also involve an effort to cut the compensation fund for Kuwait victims of the Iraqi invasion and to delay or limit a US$16 billion payment to the Kuwait Petroleum Corp. The money for the payment comes from the UN-sponsored oil-for-food program by which Baghdad has been allowed to sell oil on world markets–in principle to buy humanitarian goods for its civilian population. Thirty percent of the money raised in the oil-for-food sales, however, goes into an account set up to compensate victims of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Russian and French representatives in Geneva had held up a decision by the Compensation Commission that recommended awarding the US$16 billion on a Kuwait claim of US$21.5 billion. The Kuwaiti claim is to be considered again when the commission’s governing council meets again in Geneva later this month (Reuters, September 20; AP, September 21).