Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 225

The pressures being exerted on Moscow over Iraq are not coming from Washington and London alone. With the status of the oil-for-food program at stake and with a vote on the British-Dutch draft resolution possibly looming, Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz scrambled to Moscow last week for several days of talks with top Russian leaders. The main purpose of Aziz’ visit was clear: to dissuade Moscow from throwing its support behind the British-Dutch draft resolution. During his stay in the Russian capital Aziz held talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, top lawmakers and representatives of Russia’s oil sector. Russia’s UN envoy, Serge Lavrov, was also recalled to Moscow to take part in the consultations. Aziz described the British-Dutch resolution as “rotten,” and–well aware of the current mood in Moscow–argued that it would lead only to “more meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and even more infringement of Iraq’s national sovereignty.” In light of Russia’s own war in Chechnya, Russian leaders have gone out of their way in recent months to underscore the importance that Moscow attaches to considerations of national sovereignty.

Aziz’ lobbying for Moscow’s support was accompanied by proclamations of Russian-Iraqi friendship and talks on potential new projects for Russian oil companies in Iraq. But there was also a hint of a threat in Aziz’ public remarks–and undoubtedly in the more private Iraq-Russian consultations. In recent months Iraqi authorities have on several occasions demanded that Moscow move beyond declarations of support for Baghdad to more concrete demonstrations of friendship. Such insinuations have clearly been aimed at prodding Moscow into violating, if necessary, the UN sanctions on Baghdad. In much the same way, Iraq’s oil minister warned the Russian oil giant LUKoil earlier this year that it risks losing several lucrative contracts in Iraq if it does not move in short order to begin fulfilling those contracts–regardless of whether such an action might be in violation of the sanctions. While there was little elaboration of the details, Russian reports last week made it clear that this same set of issues was on the table during talks between Aziz and Russian government and oil industry representatives. The threat, moreover, extends beyond LUKoil. Due to Moscow’s political support for Baghdad, Russian companies have profited greatly by the oil-for-food program, and stand to make considerably more money once sanctions are lifted and billions of dollars worth of oil development contracts can be fulfilled. There is also the issue of Iraq’s US$7 billion debt to Russia. Moscow stands no chance of seeing any of that money until sanctions are lifted (Russian and Western agencies, November 30-December 2).

If anyone in Moscow failed to grasp the situation, then denunciations directed over the weekend by Iraqi authorities at France–which is reportedly leaning toward backing the British-Dutch resolution–were undoubtedly instructive. An influential Iraqi newspaper owned by one of Saddam Hussein’s sons warned yesterday, for example, that a vote by Paris against Iraq would result in France losing all its trade benefits with Iraq, including lucrative oil development deals. The newspaper singled out the French oil companies Elf Aquitaine and Total, and warned that they “will have to close their offices in Baghdad and leave.” And that means, the newspaper continued, that “they will lose the huge oil investment opportunities they have been granted” (AP, December 5). France, like Russia, had hoped to parlay its political support for Baghdad at the UN into a series of lucrative development contracts for its leading oil companies. That policy may now be under threat. For Moscow, which also hopes to use its friendship with Baghdad to reassert Russian influence in the Persian Gulf, the stakes may be even higher–and its readiness to defy Baghdad considerably lower.