Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 63

After months of haggling, Russian and U.S. negotiators reportedly managed to reach agreement last week on the outlines of a new UN sanctions regime against Iraq. The agreement came after talks in Moscow on March 27-28 led on the Russian side by Yury Fedorov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department for international organizations, and on the American side by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf. News sources were unclear as to the precise details of last week’s agreement but unanimous in describing it as a breakthrough. The Russian Foreign Ministry spoke of the two sides as having made “definite progress in the coordination of parameters for a future formula” for Iraqi sanctions, and announced that “draft documents will be submitted to the UN Security Council.” It anticipated that council members would soon adopt a “corresponding resolution.” Last week’s developments in Moscow, therefore, seem likely to ensure that agreement on a new sanctions regime against Iraq will be in place by the time the current phase of the existing “oil-for-food” program expires at the end of May. Last week’s agreement also appears to remove one potentially serious source of discord between Moscow and Washington before Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush meet for summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg on May 23-26.

Agreement on the new sanctions regime came despite reports on the eve of last week’s talks suggesting that Russian and U.S. negotiators remained at odds on several key issues related to the Iraqi sanctions. One of those issues revolved around a large number of contracts Russia and Iraq concluded under the auspices of the oil-for-food program that Washington blocked last year. Another centered on Russian claims that the “goods review list” the Bush administration presented was far too lengthy. The list, which identifies products that Iraq cannot import without the approval of the UN Security Council, is a follow-up to the “smart sanctions” proposal which the United States and Britain offered up for Security Council consideration last year. The smart sanctions plan sought to blunt international criticism of the existing sanctions regime on Iraq by allowing a freer flow of civilian goods into that country while tightening controls on Baghdad’s import of defense related or dual-use items. Russia, which has long been Baghdad’s primary backer and supported Iraqi calls for an early lifting of the UN sanctions, emerged as the leading opponent of the U.S.-British plan. In a move that appeared to reflect improved relations between Russia and the United States in the wake of September 11, however, Moscow shifted its position and agreed last November to launch negotiations with Washington over its new sanctions proposal and, specifically, the list of goods that would not be allowed into Iraq.

If initial reports are to be believed, Russian negotiators got at least some of what they were demanding last week. For example, both Russian and U.S. sources observed that the United States has agreed to unblock contracts between Iraq and Russia that are worth over US$700 million. That is out of a total of US$860 million in blocked contracts that had accumulated by the end of last year. Russian diplomatic sources, meanwhile, had made it clear going into last week’s talks that another of Moscow’s major goals was to broaden the range of civilian goods allowed into Iraq under any new sanctions regime, and that Russian negotiators were seeking in particular to ensure that equipment needed to rebuild Iraq’s economic infrastructure (and which Baghdad would presumably want Moscow to supply) was included in that category. But it is unclear how much Russian negotiators were able to achieve on this last week.

What does seem more certain is that last week’s agreement (assuming it is approved by Putin and ultimately becomes UN policy) marks a significant shift in Russia’s posture toward Iraq. Baghdad has lobbied Moscow hard to maintain its opposition to the new U.S. sanctions plan, and has threatened at various times to terminate potentially lucrative contracts with Russian companies if Moscow failed to hew this line. It will therefore be instructive to see how Baghdad reacts to last week’s agreement. Iraqi leaders have been conducting a diplomatic offensive of their own in recent weeks aimed at countering U.S. military threats against Iraq, and it is unclear whether they would want to alienate their Russian ally at so delicate a time. Some observers are speculating, meanwhile, that Moscow has decided to meet the United States halfway on the sanctions issue precisely because Russian leaders feel that policy might help divert a U.S. military attack on Iraq. Other commentators have suggested, however, that Moscow has decided it cannot influence the Bush administration one way or the other on this issue, and that it is simply hoping to ensure that any government installed by the United States in Iraq is made to honor Iraq’s Soviet-era debts to Moscow. Those debts are believed to total approximately US$7 billion, and the effort to ensure their repayment has long been a driving force in Russian policy toward Baghdad (Reuters, March 26; Interfax, March 26-29;, March 27; Washington Post, AP, March 29).