Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 224

Two days of talks between Russian and Iraqi ministers concluded uncertainly in Moscow yesterday, with both sides hailing close bilateral ties between the two countries but with no apparent breakthrough having been achieved on the key issue of when or if UN arms inspections are to resume in Iraq. Indeed, though little information about the discussions was made public, this week’s talks between Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz appear to have gone much like a round of discussions which took place last month. During a visit to Baghdad in mid-November Ivanov had also tried to convince Aziz and Iraqi authorities to permit the resumption of UN arms inspections as stipulated in UN resolution 1284. Some observers had seen the blunt Iraqi refusal on that occasion as a significant setback for Moscow. Russian officials, they suggested, had hoped to use success in Baghdad as a springboard to an enhanced role for Russia in international efforts both to resolve the Iraqi crisis and to restore some momentum to the Middle East peace process (see the Monitor, November 16).

Moscow did claim one small victory for Russian diplomacy yesterday: a confirmation from Aziz that Iraq is considering a resumption of discussions with the UN early next year aimed at ending the stalemate over weapons inspections. But it remains unclear how significant a victory that is, or whether Russia played a key role in achieving it. Aziz, after all, appeared to make clear in Moscow yesterday that Iraq’s commitment to resuming talks with the UN remains a tentative one at best, and that Iraqi authorities still have not decided upon a timetable by which talks might take place. It is worth noting, moreover, that the Iraqis originally indicated their willingness to consider a resumption of cooperation with the UN not during the Moscow meeting, but during talks in New York earlier this week between UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iraq’s UN ambassador. A spokesman for Annan said that the discussions could begin sometime in January, but he confirmed that neither the date nor the venue has yet been confirmed.

Developments have suggested that this week’s talks in Moscow might have been contentious. One was that Ivanov and Aziz reportedly canceled scheduled press conferences on both Wednesday and Thursday. Another was that yesterday’s negotiating session was apparently a long one, and was later described by unnamed Russian diplomats as having been “difficult.” In addition, Aziz apparently did not meet with President Vladimir Putin, as some Russian sources had speculated he would, nor was there the expected handing over to Putin of a message from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Most telling of all, however, was a Aziz’s blunt rejection yesterday of a question asking whether Iran was prepared to receive a delegation led by UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. All of these developments suggested that Moscow had achieved little success in its effort to grab the mantle of mediator in the Persian Gulf by convincing Iraq to accept the UN inspectors (AP, Reuters, November 29; AP, AFP, UPI, Russian agencies, November 30; Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 29).

For all of that, Moscow clearly remains committed to winning an early lifting of UN sanctions imposed against Iraq and to supporting Baghdad on such issues as ending U.S. and British air patrols over Iraq’s no-fly zones. Indeed, Aziz’s Moscow visit was part of a longer trip in which the Iraqi official visited friendly capitals to gather support for a lifting of the UN sanctions. He secured China’s support prior to arriving in Moscow, and also won an endorsement from the Kremlin while in the Russian capital. Russia’s interests in freeing Baghdad from international sanctions are economic as well as geopolitical. The termination of sanctions would permit Iraq to begin paying its US$7 billion Soviet-era debt to Moscow. It could also open the way to a series of lucrative development contracts for various Russian companies–particularly in the energy sector. Ivanov has reportedly written to the UN secretary general complaining that the sanctions on Iraq have cost Moscow some US$30 billion (Reuters, November 29). He apparently did not mention the estimates of those Russian analysts who have suggested that the end of sanctions and the return of Iraqi oil to the international market could lower world oil prices and cut into the massive revenues Russia’s own oil sales are earning the government.

Meanwhile, the inconclusive end to this week’s talks in Moscow come in the wake of an equally inconclusive effort by the Kremlin to raise Russia’s profile in the Middle East more generally by getting the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the bargaining table. Russian news media gave a great deal of attention to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s November 24 visit to Moscow and hailed a telephone conversation between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak–arranged by Putin–as a diplomatic breakthrough for Russia and the Middle East. That Moscow continues to run into obstacles in its effort to become a key player in the region was suggested this week, however, by the postponement of a visit to Moscow by Israel’s chief envoy. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami twice put off the visit, the second postponement coming after Putin had urged that “international control” be strengthened in the Middle East. Israel has opposed broadening international involvement in the peace process, and Ben Ami’s postponement decision was presumably not a result solely of the political turmoil currently engulfing Israel’s political elite (AFP, November 24-25, 29).