Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 79

However accurate Izvestia’s depiction of Ahmad’s visit may have been, there is no question that it came amid continuing tensions between Russia and the United States over policy toward Iraq. Those differences have been manifested most graphically in the seizure by U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf of two Russian tankers alleged to be carrying smuggled Iraqi oil. Moscow has protested both seizures and some in Russia have accused the United States of singling out Russian ships for intimidation.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s embarrassment over the first seizure, which took place in February, was probably at least in part the cause of a Russian move in March to block efforts to clamp down on Iraqi oil smuggling. The United States claims that illegal oil smuggling out of Iraq is currently at an all-time high–with totals possibly reaching as high as 250,000 barrels of crude oil and refined products per day. To stop the flow, the United States and Britain have proposed that the UN sanctions committee officially pressure Iran to end any support that it might be offering to smugglers. Russia–which has friendly relations with both Baghdad and Tehran–objected to the proposal on the grounds that smuggling through northern Iraq to Turkey–a key U.S. ally–should also be examined (Dow Jones Newswires, March 17).

Russia and the United States have also clashed over the large number of contracts which Washington has blocked under the UN’s oil-for-food program with Iraq. The United States has reportedly frozen more than US$1.5 billion worth of Iraqi contracts, considerably more than the US$140 million worth of contracts blocked by Britain, which is second to the United States in this category. During a particularly contentious UN Security Council debate in late March, a number of countries joined with Russia in accusing the United States of undermining UN humanitarian efforts in Iraq and thus worsening the already desperate plight of Iraq’s civilian population. A Russian Foreign Ministry released on March 27 accused the United States–and Britain–of contributing to a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. It also called, among other things, for scrapping the entire oil-for-food program (Reuters, March 24-25; Russian agencies, March 25, 27; AP, March 28).

In addition, Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads over the issues of U.S (and British) air strikes on Iraq and the reestablishment of UN arms inspections in that country. Indeed, on April 13 Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Sergei Lavrov, linked the two issues. Russia has long denounced U.S. and British airstrikes in “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq, and Lavrov suggested that Moscow would not push Baghdad to cooperate with a new UN arms inspection team unless the air strikes are halted. He also lashed out at U.S. talk of toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “The Security Council never authorized creation of any no-fly zones… and the Security Council never presented the task of undermining the regime in Baghdad,” Lavrov was quoted as saying. “If the unilateral [American] actions continue, then I don’t believe the atmospherics would be right for any hope for success [for the arms inspection regime]” (Washington Post, April 14). Continuing differences between Russia and the United States on these issues, not to mention emerging tensions over the naming of personnel to the new UN arms inspection commission for Iraq, suggest that Baghdad will remain a test for Russian and U.S. diplomats, even in the new “Putin era.”