Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 66

In what appears to be part of a stepped-up Moscow effort to increase its influence in the Persian Gulf, the Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday released a statement urging the United Nations to make a commitment to lifting sanctions against Baghdad if weapons inspections produce no evidence of Iraqi activity in this area. “If, over a clearly defined, reasonable period of time, the monitoring body fails to uncover any Iraqi activity linked with banned military programs, then the UN Security Council should take a decision on lifting sanctions from Iraq, the ministry statement read. It also urged all countries “interested in a comprehensive resolution of the Iraqi question and in stabilizing the situation in the Persian Gulf to join forces on the basis of a ‘package’ approach,” one which would result in the suspension, and then the removal of economic sanctions in exchange for the reestablishment on Iraqi territory of a system of international disarmament monitoring.” The statement went on to say that “all of these questions need to be put into a Memorandum of mutual understanding between the government of Iraq and the UN” (Reuters, Russian agencies, April 3).

The Russian initiative, which also included indirect calls for an end to U.S. and British patrolling of the “no-fly zones” over Iraq, came as the head of the UN inspection committee on Iraq, Hans Blix, arrived in Washington for two days of talks with Bush administration officials. There have been no UN weapons inspections in Iraq since the United States and Britain launched air attacks on Iraq in late 1998, and a divided UN Security Council is apparently gearing up once again to try to hammer out an approach which is both satisfactory to all members and which offers the possibility of returning the inspectors to Baghdad. The task will not be an easy one. Aside from Baghdad’s own objections, Security Council permanent members Russia, China and France continue to back a more accommodating approach toward Iraq, one which would establish a lower threshold for the removal of sanctions, while the United States and Britain have held to a harder line. The issue is particularly critical at present, both because violence between Israelis and Palestinians has inflamed Arab opinion on the Iraq sanctions issue, and because the Bush administration, which has made better enforcement of sanctions a priority, is in the process of formulating what is expected to be a new and firmer U.S. approach to the problem.

Indeed, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement yesterday–and other recent Russian pronouncements on the Iraq issue in general–suggest that the Kremlin is intensifying its efforts to cash in diplomatically on the uncertain conditions currently prevailing with respect to U.S. and international policy toward Baghdad. Yesterday’s call for the international community to rally behind Moscow’s latest initiative appears, in this context, to be an effort by Moscow to counter what most observers believe will be a new Bush administration push to reorient and toughen the sanctions regime. The Russian statement, at the same time, suggests a Moscow play to win support in the Arab world by playing upon frustrations there with both the Iraqi sanctions regime and with what is perceived to be one-sided U.S. support for Israel. In that respect, yesterday’s statement reprises President Vladimir Putin’s recent call for Arab leaders to lift sanctions against Baghdad. In a statement of his own released by the Kremlin on March 27, during a summit meeting of Arab leaders in Amman, Putin described the sanctions as “destabilizing factor in the [Persian Gulf] region.” He also urged an end to U.S. and British air attacks in Iraq–calling them “interference in the internal affairs of the sovereign Arab state–and said that peace would come to the Middle East only after Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria (AFP, March 27).

Russia’s Persian Gulf initiative, moreover, also comes amid indications that the Russian government, which has already played a leading role in undermining the sanctions regime against Iraq, is preparing to tighten more direct bilateral relations between the two countries. That, at least, was the message conveyed by the Iraqi leadership during a visit to Baghdad last week by the speaker of the Russian lower house of parliament, Gennady Seleznev. “Iraq’s government has a serious and deep desire to cooperate with Russia in all fields where it can fulfill its commitments and Iraq can meet its own now and in the future,” Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein reportedly told the Russian lawmaker. The Iraqi statement comes amid continuing contacts between authorities in Baghdad and Russian oil companies, one of which led late last month to the Russian oil company Tatneft getting permission from the UN to drill oil wells on Iraqi territory. Russian companies have reportedly signed billions of dollars worth of energy development contracts with Iraq, contracts which can only be realized once sanctions against Iraq are lifted.

More disturbing, however, is an apparently still-unconfirmed report published by Britain’s Telegraph in late February alleging that Iraq would soon increase the number of personnel it has stationed in the country’s diplomat missions in Russia and Belarus. The newspaper reported that the increase would include the dispatch to Moscow of Brigadier Saadi Mohammed Subhi, a senior Iraqi military official who is to head a twenty-strong military intelligence bureau attached to the Moscow embassy. The newspaper quoted unnamed Western intelligence officials who expressed concerns that Subhi’s unit and another, similar group that is to be dispatched to Belarus may be tasked with negotiating arms deals with Moscow (The Telegraph, February 25; Moscow Times, March 2).

Whether the Telegraph report proves to be true, the more important point appears to be that expanding ties between Russia and Iraq could yet become one more point of friction in an already troubled Russian-U.S. relationship. Aggressive Russian diplomatic moves aimed at promoting a Moscow-backed settlement of the conflict between Baghdad and the UN could likewise create yet another complication for a U.S. administration trying both to shape events in the region to its own liking and to reestablish a sanctions regime that has become increasingly leaky over the past several years.