Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 26

An apparent rebuff the Kremlin delivered to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz appears to have roiled relations between longtime allies Russia and Iraq on the very eve of a new round of talks between Moscow and Washington on a U.S. plan to reshape the UN sanctions regime on Baghdad. The rebuff appears to have come during a pair of visits Aziz made to Moscow last week. The Iraqi minister had reportedly traveled to the Russian capital with the express goal of scuppering any prospective Russian-U.S. deal on the sanctions issue. But he was not granted an audience with President Vladimir Putin during his first visit to Moscow–a fact that reportedly indicated a failure by Moscow and Baghdad to hammer out a common position on the sanctions issue (see the Monitor, January 28)–and then hurried away early from the Russian capital in the midst of a return visit on January 31.

Initial reports were unclear on the exact reason for Aziz’s hasty departure, but subsequent comments a senior Iraqi government official made strongly suggested that it had to do with Baghdad’s unhappiness with the Kremlin’s position on the sanctions issue. In an interview published by the Russian daily Vremya Novostei, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan bitterly criticized the Russian Foreign Ministry–but not President Vladimir Putin directly–for what he said was Russia’s decision to cooperate with U.S. efforts to reshape the sanctions regime on Iraq. Among other things, Ramadan warned that “Russian businessmen will be the first to be affected” if new sanctions are imposed on Iraq. That remark appeared to reprise earlier Iraqi warnings that Russian companies stand to lose out on a series of extremely lucrative trade deals with Baghdad if Moscow fails to back Iraq in UN Security Council deliberations on the sanctions question.

At issue is the so-called U.S.-British “smart sanctions” plan, a proposal that would tighten restrictions on defense related imports into Iraq while relaxing restrictions on the import of civilian goods. Moscow had stonewalled the U.S.-British proposal throughout much of last year, but reached an eleventh-hour compromise with Washington in November that could open the way to an imposition of the smart sanctions regime this spring. Russian and U.S. negotiators were set to resume negotiations on the smart sanctions plan in Geneva today. Their efforts will focus in particular on a lengthy list of “dual-use” items–said by one Russian source to amount to more than 500 pages–whose entry into Iraq is to be prohibited under the new sanctions plan. The Russian negotiating team will presumably be aiming to shorten that list considerably, and implementation of the smart sanctions plan will follow only if the two countries can come to an agreement on exactly which items are or are not to be allowed into Iraq. As of last fall, the United States and Britain reportedly had all of the UN’s permanent Security Council members on board the smart sanctions plan except for Russia, and Moscow could still veto the proposal if it feels the new sanctions plan treats Iraq too harshly.

Russian diplomats, meanwhile, have long been trying to convince Iraqi authorities to accept a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq in exchange for an early lifting of the sanctions regime on Baghdad. According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the Russian proposal identifies sites in Iraq still to be inspected, with a time limit for completing the inspections. Sanctions would be suspended if the inspectors, having returned to Iraq, reported that Iraqi authorities were cooperating properly. Sanctions would be permanently lifted on completion of the inspections and within a relatively short time frame. Iraqi authorities have repeatedly rebuffed Russian proposals in this area, but more recent reports had suggested that Iraq’s resistance to the Russian plans had begun to weaken in the face of U.S. threats to take military action against Iraq if the inspectors are not allowed to return.

Given Baghdad’s reaction to Aziz’s reception in Moscow, it is now unclear whether this weakening is really occurring. Russian diplomats, however, are reportedly continuing to press the necessity of a compromise on Baghdad. They have made it clear that Iraq is now between a rock and a hard place, and that a return of the inspectors may be the only way to forestall U.S. military actions. But authorities in Baghdad, who have vehemently opposed both the return of inspectors and any move to reshape the sanctions regime on Iraq, have probably hesitated to embrace the Russian proposal in part because of fears that Moscow will not be able to deliver on one of its key components: the promise for a quick suspension, and then lifting, of the sanctions once inspectors are allowed back into Iraq (AP, The Guardian,, February 4; New York Times, February 5).

If Moscow does manage to secure a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq, it will be seen as both a major victory for Russian diplomacy and a boost for Moscow’s efforts to assign itself a mediator’s role on the world stage. But if Aziz’s treatment in Moscow signaled a new Russian willingness to work with the United States toward a resolution of the crisis over Iraq, the more general posture of Russian leaders with respect to broader U.S. policy toward Baghdad has been less accommodating. Russian authorities have been quietly critical of U.S. President George W. Bush’s January 29 State-of-the-Union speech for its designation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” The Russian president expressed Russian concerns in this area last week when–in a clear reference to Washington–he dismissed any model of international relations “based on the domination of one center of force” (see the Monitor, February 1). Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov expressed the same sentiment more directly on February 4 when, in the course of a visit to Washington, he suggested that Bush’s “axis of evil” speech threatened to identify “imaginary” dangers rather than real ones. The remarks by Putin and Kasyanov reflected the fact that even Moscow’s new enthusiasm for working with Washington will not easily allay its opposition to U.S. threats aimed at Iraq, Iran and North Korea, all countries viewed as friendly to Russia (Interfax, January 31; AFP, February 1; Reuters, AP, February 4).