Yesterday Russia found itself briefly at the center of international diplomatic maneuvering over Iraq, as Moscow played host to separate one-day visits by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also happened to be in Moscow yesterday, though Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov insisted to journalists that his visit was in no way connected to the Iraq talks. Indeed, there had been no prior plans for Sabri and Blix to meet directly, and reports reiterated that they had not. The Moscow talks were nonetheless significant, coming on the eve of negotiations between Iraq and the United Nations scheduled to take place in New York later this week. The talks also came as UN Security Council members hurry to finalize a resolution revamping the existing sanctions regime on Iraq before a May 29 deadline. Baghdad opposes the new sanctions, and Sabri’s visit to Moscow was undoubtedly directed at least in part at trying to reverse a recent Russian decision to back the U.S. and British-sponsored plan.
Yesterday, however, Baghdad and Moscow appeared to decide to paper over their differences in this area. Statements the two men provided to the press underscored their general satisfaction with the state of Iraqi-Russian bilateral relations and their related hopes of expanding trade and political cooperation still further. Comments related to the diplomatic tensions swirling about Iraq were equally cautious. Ivanov continued Moscow’s policy of trying to walk a fine line between Washington and Baghdad. He implicitly rejected U.S. threats of a military attack on Iraq by asserting yet again Moscow’s belief that the Persian Gulf crisis can be dealt with by political means alone. “Such a political solution is possible,” he was quoted as saying. “Furthermore, this is the only way to resolve the Iraqi situation and create stability in the Gulf.”
At the same time, Ivanov continued to pressure Baghdad into accepting the return of UN weapons inspectors, arguing that only by this procedure could UN resolutions on Iraq be satisfied and the sanctions against Baghdad be lifted. A Russian deputy foreign minister was quoted as saying that the “world community should be absolutely sure that mass destruction weapons cannot be produced on the territory of Iraq” and that weapons “monitoring should be resumed on Iraqi territory.” Not surprisingly, Ivanov announced Moscow’s support for the dialogue set to take place this week between Iraq and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. And he made clear that Russia has no special plan of its own aimed at easing tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Sabri, for his part, was quoted as saying that Baghdad “highly values the position that Russia has taken against aggression with respect to Iraq, and against the blockades thrust on Iraq.” He described Russia as “a friend of the Arab people.” On a harsher note, and in yet another effort by Iraqi leaders to link their own struggles with those of the Palestinians, he spoke of “double standards” in the world community’s efforts to enforce UN resolutions against Iraq while not doing the same with respect to resolutions targeting Israel.
Ivanov’s remarks underscored anew the points at which Moscow’s and Washington’s policies toward Iraq diverge. That pertains most obviously to Russian insistence on a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis at a time when Washington is threatening military actions and, by most accounts, putting itself in a position to launch military operations sometime next year. The same is true of the talks scheduled to take place this week between Iraq and the UN, which Russia praises as part of this political process and which Washington sees as little more than another attempt by Iraq to buy time and manipulate the international community (Reuters, AP, Interfax, April 29; Strana.ru, April 27, 29).
Perhaps the most important practical difference between Russia and the United States, however, lies in their differing views of the demand to return UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. At least outwardly, Moscow seems still to be living in the pre-September 11 world. It argues, as it did then, that the return of inspectors is not only desirable insofar as it would bring Iraq into conformity with UN demands, but that it should also lead to a quick lifting of UN sanctions on Baghdad. Ivanov reportedly made this same point again in his discussions yesterday in Moscow with Blix. By contrast, most news accounts suggest that the Bush administration has now decided to take military action against Iraq, and views the arms inspection issue as largely a peripheral one. Iraq refusing the inspections, these reports suggest, would provide one obvious justification for American military operations against Iraq. But even should Baghdad accept the inspectors, Washington would move to broaden their mandate to a point beyond what the Iraqi authorities would accept.
If this interpretation of U.S. policy is correct, then Moscow seems indeed to be between a rock and a hard place. Yesterday’s public statements by Ivanov and Sabri did not reflect it, but Iraqi authorities have warned Russia in recent weeks to give up its support of the new U.S. sanctions plan and to again ally itself more fully with Baghdad. At stake for Russia initially are billions of dollars in revenue that it is earning under the current UN “oil-for-food” program thanks to Moscow’s favored status in Baghdad. Iraqi authorities have also threatened to terminate additional billions of dollars worth of contracts with Russian companies that can only be realized once the UN sanctions are lifted. And Moscow fears that a rupture with Baghdad–or U.S. military actions against Iraq that lead to Saddam Hussein’s downfall–could undermine its chances of collecting on some US$7 billion in Soviet-era debt owed by Iraq to Russia (see the Monitor, April 5; Interfax, April 23).
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have suggested that the United States might be willing to accommodate Russia in this area, and some have said that Moscow might even have a better time of it economically with a post-Saddam regime. But those assurances have been vague ones (Baltimore Sun, March 5). Against this background, Washington’s ability to get Russia on board its Iraq policy–and to keep it there–may depend to some extent upon the results of the upcoming Russian-U.S. summit and relations between the two countries more generally.
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