Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 132

An unexpected and apparently hastily arranged visit to Moscow by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz has produced little in the way of headlines over the past several days. Aziz arrived in Moscow on July 5, ostensibly to take part in a conference of former foreign ministers which opened in the Russian capital this week. But the visit, which overlapped in part with an equally unexpected trip to the Russian capital by Syrian President Hafez Assad, focused attention anew on Moscow’s persistent efforts to reestablish itself as a player in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

The arrival of Aziz coincided with several other developments relative to the situation in Iraq. For one, it came amid a renewed push by UN Security Council members to break a long deadlock in policy toward Baghdad. Russia, supported by China and France, is seeking a quick lifting of sanctions against Iraq and the establishment there of an arms monitoring regime less intrusive than the one which had been in place until last December. Britain and the United States, by contrast, continue to take a harder line with regard both to sanctions and the arms monitoring issue.

Aziz’s visit also follows talks in Moscow late last month between UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and top Russian leaders, including President Boris Yeltsin. Some reports this week have suggested that Aziz came to Moscow in part to learn what had been said about Iraq during Annan’s visit (UPI, July 5).

Aziz’s arrival, finally, appears to coincide with an effort by Baghdad to mend fences with Moscow following threats leveled against Russian oil giant LUKoil. On June 21 Iraq’s oil minister said that he had given LUKoil and the Chinese National Petroleum Company–each of which has signed major oil development contracts with Iraq–a deadline of “a few weeks” in which to begin fulfilling those contracts. Action by the two companies to meet the Iraqi demands would have meant a violation of international sanctions against Iraq. Baghdad has since backed off its threat (see the Monitor, July 1).

Aziz held talks in Moscow on July 6 with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The two sides reportedly reiterated their intention to continue Russian-Iraqi cooperation in the oil industry. At present, they said, that cooperation will take place under the UN’s oil-for-food program. But cooperation will ultimately be broadened into other areas once international sanctions on Iraq are lifted. During the talks Ivanov was said to have repeated Moscow’s call for a “new system of international monitoring” in Iraq and for the lifting of sanctions, but provided no details. The Russian minister also leveled fresh criticism at the United States and Britain for their continued military actions in Iraq’s “no-fly zones.” Ivanov claimed that U.S. and British air strikes are keeping tensions high in the region and described the strikes as interference in Iraq’s internal affairs (Russian agencies, July 5; Bridge News, July 6; Reuters, July 7).

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin used the visit by Aziz to launch yet another unseemly personal attack on Australian diplomat Richard Butler, who until recently headed UNSCOM, the UN agency in charge of monitoring Iraq’s disarmament. Rakhmanin charged, among other things, that Butler had been primarily responsible for the crisis that led to last December’s U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq (Russian agencies, July 6). Russia’s UN ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, has repeatedly denounced Butler and sought to exclude him from Security Council discussions of Iraq.

Aziz was scheduled this week to meet with representatives of LUKoil, but it was unclear yesterday whether that meeting had yet taken place. LUKoil has committed to invest some US$200 million in the development of up to 10 billion barrels of oil reserves in Iraq’s West Qurna oil field (Itar-Tass, July 6).