Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 19

Moscow has attempted in recent years to use its status as Baghdad’s primary supporter in order to carve out a mediating role for itself in the often tense deliberations between Iraq and the UN. In the broadest terms, Russian diplomats have tried to convince the Iraqi leadership that it is in their best interest to permit the return of UN weapons inspectors, who have been absent from Iraq since U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq took place in December of 1998. Moscow has offered, in return, to back Baghdad’s demands for a quick lifting of the UN sanctions. To date these Russian efforts have produced little fruit, in part because of staunch Iraqi opposition to any return of the inspectors, and in part because of a strong disinclination on the U.S.-British side to give any commitment toward an early lifting of the sanctions on Iraq.

Reports out of Moscow and Baghdad in recent days have suggested that Iraqi authorities may now be looking at the Russian proposals more seriously, however. This may be due to fears in Baghdad that the country could soon become a target of U.S. military action. According to an unnamed Western diplomat based in Baghdad, Russia is spearheading a search for a “settlement or formula that would meet Iraq’s demand for a lifting or suspension of the (UN) embargo in exchange for the inspectors’ return.” Another, quoted in the same dispatch from AFP, said that Baghdad might “soften its position” and accept a formula providing for “the inspectors’ return for a fixed period and with a specific mission.” A Saudi-owned newspaper, meanwhile, reported last week that the Iraqi leadership is proposing to “resolve differences with the United Nations provided the Americans stay out of the UN inspection teams.”

According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, a key to the current negotiations is whether Moscow can provide convincing enough assurances that the sanctions will indeed be lifted in the event that Iraq permits the return of UN weapons inspectors. It is to this condition that Aziz was presumably referring in Moscow when he was quoted as saying that “if you want a solution” to the weapons inspection issue then “you have to want a package–we support that.”

Talks between Russia and the United States on the smart sanctions plan, meanwhile, will apparently continue apace. At issue is an effort by the British and U.S. governments to recast the sanctions regime on Iraq by permitting a freer flow of civilian goods into Iraq while simultaneously screening more carefully all imports with possible military applications. Washington and Moscow butted heads sharply on this issue last spring and fall when, on both occasions, the Kremlin maneuvered in Security Council deliberation to scuttle implementation of the smart sanctions plan (see the Monitor, November 27, 2001). In late November, however, the two countries did reach an eleventh-hour compromise under which Moscow suspended its opposition to the British-U.S. plan. But the conditions attached by Moscow to the agreement suggested that much hard negotiation remained ahead.

In December, moreover, there was a new deadlock in talks between the two sides that were aimed at establishing the specific list of military-related goods which would not be permitted into Iraq under the proposed smart sanctions plan. In addition, Moscow complained anew about the number of Russian-Iraq contracts under the existing “oil-for-food” program which have been effectively frozen by Washington. As Iraq’s leading backer on the UN Security Council, Russian companies have profited enormously from the oil-for-food program, and Washington’s moves to freeze large numbers of these contracts–the value of the frozen contracts is reportedly up to US$860 million–has long been a point of contention between Russia and the United States (Moscow Times, Kommersant, January 24; AFP, January 25, 27; Reuters, January 24, 27; Interfax,, January 24-25, 27).