Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

The December 17 UN Security Council resolution establishes a new agency charged with disarming Iraq. Awkwardly tagged the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), the new body replaces UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission which previously oversaw the UN disarmament efforts in Iraq. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has thirty days to appoint an executive chairman of UNMOVIC. The December 17 resolution also stipulates that sanctions against Iraq can be suspended by a vote of the Security Council following an UNMOVIC report indicating that Iraq has completed key disarmament tasks and cooperated with UN inspectors for a 120-day test period. Such suspensions would have to be renewed regularly, on the same schedule. The old UN “oil-for-food program” is also folded into the new resolution, and the current cap on how much oil Iraq can sell–US$5.26 billion every six months–has been lifted. Finally, the new resolution both relaxes some restrictions on the import by Iraq of so-called humanitarian goods and permits international flights to Iraq–but only those connected to pilgrimages to Mecca.

Critics of the resolution are pointing with concern to some of the concessions made by those supporting the British-Dutch draft. These include a decision to drop a provision in the resolution which had called for including UNSCOM inspectors–seen by their supporters as having the greatest knowledge of Iraq’s arms productions efforts–in the new UN disarmament agency. There are also concerns that UNMOVIC will not operate with the independence that UNSCOM did, and that the eased restrictions on the import of humanitarian goods will permit Iraqi authorities to buy materials used in arms production (Reuters, AP, December 17; Washington Post, New York Times, December 18).

Russian officials have suggested in recent days that it was concessions such as these which made it decide to abstain from voting on the December 17 resolution, rather than to vote against and thus veto it. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued on the same day praised the easing of restrictions on Iraqi humanitarian imports and said that the resolution provides a potential opening for the suspension–and then the lifting–of UN sanctions on Iraq. But the statement also pointed specifically to ambiguities within the resolution regarding the criteria for suspending and lifting the sanctions, and said that this imprecision was what had compelled Russia, France, China and Malaysia to abstain from the vote (Itar-Tass, December 17). The reference was presumably to the so-called “triggers” issue, that is, precisely what disarmament conditions Baghdad must fulfill in order to trigger a suspension or lifting of sanctions. Russian (and French) officials suggested that they fear that the ambiguities in the resolution on this point could allow the United States and Britain to continue simply to veto any lifting of sanctions, regardless of Baghdad’s actions.

That point may be moot for the time being, insofar as Iraqi authorities on December 18 formally rejected the Security Council resolution. That move suggests that Baghdad will continue to pressure Russia, France and China to get what it really wants from them–a repudiation of even the modest terms set out in the December 17 resolution and the immediate lifting of sanctions. To achieve this goal, Baghdad can also be counted on to threaten what those countries fear most–the breaking by Iraqi authorities of lucrative oil development and other trade contracts which Baghdad has signed with Russian, French and Chinese companies. Baghdad’s strategy was played out in the days before the December 17 vote when, apprised of the shift in France’s position to one of support for the British-Dutch draft resolution–Iraqi authorities warned that French oil companies could expect to lose all of their contracts in Iraq. That threat appeared to be behind France’s decision to abstain from the December 17 vote. The same message, moreover, was clearly being conveyed by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz during a visit to Moscow that occurred at this same time (see the Monitor, December 6). Aziz did not get the Russian veto that he desired. But the abstention served Baghdad’s purposes well enough for the time-being, and gave Iraqi authorities time to continue working on their partners in Moscow.