Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 108

Reporting on last week’s UN Security Council decision to extend by one month the Iraq “oil-for-food” program has been divided over whether the decision represented a victory or a defeat for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell–and whether, by extension, it may also mark an at least temporary narrowing of differences between the United States and Russia on Iraq policy. At issue are diplomatic negotiations that took place among UN Security Council members on May 31 and resulted, on June 1, in the unanimous adoption of a resolution to extend the Iraq humanitarian aid program by thirty days. Council members were said to have been surprised when the extension resolution, which Great Britain drafted, was introduced to the council on May 31 by Russia. Long the most forceful advocate for an easing or lifting of sanctions on Baghdad, Moscow had reportedly refused until May 31 even to participate in discussions on an earlier British-U.S. resolution aimed at recasting the sanctions regime on Iraq. Until those negotiations Russian diplomats had opposed the British-U.S. draft and had pushed hard instead for a standard six-month rollover of the existing UN oil-for-food program.

Those interpreting last week’s UN developments as a defeat for Powell pointed to hopes in Washington and London that the earlier British-U.S. draft resolution, which was introduced to the Security Council on May 22, would win quick approval and thus be in place when the current six-month extension of the oil-for-food program expired on June 4. The British-U.S. initiative was an important one for the U.S. State Department because it represented a first effort by the Bush administration to effect policy changes in an area that it has identified as a top priority: the rebuilding of a sanctions regime on Baghdad that has been in tatters since U.S.-British airstrikes on Iraq in late 1998. Not surprisingly, Russian opposition was among the chief obstacles to approval of the May 22 British-U.S. draft resolution. For several years now Moscow has spearheaded opposition to harder-line U.S. and British positions with regard to Iraq, often speaking also for China and France, which like Russia have been more sympathetic to Baghdad. Moscow appeared set to reprise this role last month when it offered its own resolution as competition for the British-U.S. draft. Although the Russian document stood no chance of approval, its introduction was intended to complicate Washington’s and London’s efforts to win the necessary rapid approval of the May 22 draft. Some observers saw the fact Britain and the United States failed to accomplish this by the June 4 deadline, and had to resort instead to turning over the oil-for-food program for another month, as a defeat for Washington.

In this same context, reports differed over whether intensive negotiations held on the sidelines of last week’s NATO foreign ministers summit in Budapest–which included talks between Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov–had helped or hindered Washington’s cause. Those observers who have seen the June 1 UN resolution as a defeat for Washington have suggested that the Budapest talks failed to resolve differences between Security Council members on Iraq. It was this failure that reportedly compelled the United States and Britain to give up trying to win approval for the May 22 British-U.S. draft and to push instead for the one-month sanctions turnover.

Other reports have suggested, however, that the Budapest talks were an at least limited success, and that the June 1 UN resolution turning over the UN oil-for-food program for another month provides some hope of at last breaking the Security Council’s long deadlock over Iraq. These reports have described the June 1 resolution as the first show of unity between Russia and the United States on Iraq policy in years. Of more importance, they have suggested that the June 1 resolution represents a broader coalescence of views among Security Council members on the future shape of the UN sanctions regime and that it may open the way to agreement on British-U.S. “smart sanctions” plan. “It’s really quite an achievement,” one U.S. official was quoted as saying on May 31. “It’s a basic agreement on the new framework” (Washington Post, May 31, June 1; New York Times, June 1; Reuters, May 31, June 1; AP, May 31).

Russian sources, meanwhile, have, at least initially, provided little insight either into what prompted Moscow to introduce the British draft resolution on May 31, or into precisely what Russia’s calculations are at present with regard to negotiating the new Iraq sanctions regime. The Russian Foreign Ministry has released a bland statement hailing the June 1 resolution, and saying that it “reflects vitally important provisions, including the possibility of lifting sanctions on Iraq, conditioned on compliance with the appropriate UN Security Council resolutions.” The wording of that assessment coincides with an earlier (and unsuccessful) Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at getting Baghdad to agree to the resumption of UN arms inspections in exchange for a UN commitment to lift sanctions quickly if no arms transgressions were discovered. The recent Russian statement also underlines Moscow’s readiness to begin the difficult and complex task of negotiating the details of a new sanctions regime for Iraq (Itar-Tass, Strana.ru, June 2; Russian agencies, June 4).

It is in the negotiation of those details that it will become more clear whether the most recent developments over Iraq policy mark the beginning of a new, more cooperative era among UN Security Council members on the issue of Iraq, and whether the Bush administration’s recent courtship of Moscow will pay any quick dividends in this area. Based on the terms of the June 1 resolution, Security Council members now have about a month to discuss the British-U.S. “smart sanctions” plan, and to try to resolve their differences on a host of issues contained therein. Negotiations are expected to focus, however, on the long list of items that the British-U.S. plan would ban from entering Iraq. Russia, China and France, Baghdad’s three UN Security Council supporters, argued late last month that the late introduction of the British-U.S. plan gave them too little time to examine this list of banned items.

Differences in the coming weeks, therefore, are likely to center on differing interpretations of what should or should not be allowed into Iraq, especially with regard to so-called “dual use” items that have civilian or military application. Washington and London are known to have interpreted this term broadly, and to have tried in their draft resolution to lengthen the list of banned items. Russia, China and France, conversely, will likely push for fewer limits on the import into Iraq of equipment necessary to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Ultimately, the chances of reaching final agreement on a new Iraqi sanctions regime may come down to the number of concessions that Washington is willing to make in this area. Indeed, that pattern appears already to have been evident in the negotiations that led up to the June 1 UN resolution. Although U.S. officials have denied that there was any quid pro quo involved, Moscow’s willingness to go along with the resolution appears to have been related at least in part to a U.S. announcement–also made on June 1–that Washington was releasing more than US$800 million worth of contracts that it previously blocked under the UN’s oil-for-food program. Moscow had been among the harshest critics of U.S. actions in this area, arguing along with Paris and Beijing that the United States had without good reason been keeping such dual-use items as oil-drilling machines, water pumps and welding equipment from reaching Iraq (Reuters, AP, June 1).