Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 217

Despite a rapid warming in relations more generally and a narrowing of differences on several key foreign and security policy issues, Russia and the United States have continued to clash in recent weeks on the subject of UN policy toward Iraq. This was demonstrated anew yesterday when, during a telephone conversation between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Powell was unable to persuade his opposite number to support U.S. proposals aimed at reshaping the current UN sanctions regime on Iraq. Powell’s failure appears to have been no surprise. Bush administration officials had hoped earlier this fall that the ties between Russia and the United States so improved by Russia’s enlistment in the U.S. antiterrorism drive might also help the two countries to find common ground on Iraq. But though the issue was apparently discussed at some length during the Putin-Bush summit meeting that took place earlier this month in Washington and Texas, no subsequent breakthrough was announced. And reports this week have continued to indicate that Russia is digging in its heels in opposition to the so-called U.S. “smart sanctions” plan, despite the fact that Washington and key ally Britain have now won the support of all other permanent UN Security Council members on the matter.

Barring a sudden U-turn in Russian policy, Moscow’s ongoing differences with Washington probably mean that the Security Council will be unable to reach a consensus on the new sanctions regime by the time the current sanctions phase expires at the end of this month. The situation is therefore much like it was in June of this year, when Russian opposition also served to frustrate U.S.-British hopes of reshaping the UN sanctions regime on Iraq in a fashion that would tighten controls over Baghdad’s military imports while easing the flow of civilian goods into Iraq. This so-called “smart sanctions” plan is the centerpiece of an effort by the Bush administration, and especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, to reinvigorate the sanctions regime against Iraq after a long period in which declining international support for the sanctions has made them ever more difficult to enforce. In one sense, the issue has become more urgent since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, because of Bush administration charges that Iraq is both a sponsor of international terrorism and using the weakening of sanctions to move forward in the development of weapons of mass destruction. Simultaneously, however, Washington’s apparent determination to keep Russia firmly in the antiterror coalition seems to have led the Bush administration to ease the pressure it had been exerting on Russia to support the new sanctions plan.

Government authorities in Baghdad, moreover, appear confident that they will be able to retain Moscow’s backing as their face-off with the United States over the sanctions plan deepens. In an interview with the Reuters news agency this past weekend, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri rejected U.S. calls for the return of UN arms monitors to Iraq, and also warned that Baghdad would terminate the UN’s “oil-for-food” program if the UN Security Council should opt to embrace the British-U.S. smart sanctions plan. Sabri, who met earlier this month in New York with Russia’s foreign minister, was also quoted as saying that he saw no reason to expect a change in Moscow’s posture on the matter. Iraqi authorities should be able to test that assertion this week. Nikolai Kartuzov, a special Russian envoy, arrived in Baghdad yesterday for three days of talks with the Iraqi leadership. He will then travel on from Baghdad to visit Jordan and Egypt.

Given how important Iraqi-Russian ties are at such a critical juncture, authorities in Baghdad could only have been heartened by what a senior Russian diplomat said at a roundtable discussion yesterday in Moscow on the subject of Russian-Iraqi economic cooperation. Speaking of Iraqi-Russian trade relations, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltaganov said that Baghdad is becoming Russia’s largest partner in the Middle East and among its most important trading partners in the Arab world. He claimed, among other things, that the volume of Iraqi-Russian trade under the latest phase of the UN’s oil-for-food program had amounted to US$1.3 billion–more than twice the amount recorded during the previous phase (the one that ended this past spring). He also said that Russia had retained its leadership position among all countries dealing with Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Trade between Iraq and Russia could rise still higher, moreover, following a meeting of an Iraqi-Russian intergovernmental trade commission that is scheduled to meet in January of next year, the Iraqi ambassador to Russia said yesterday.

These numbers would appear to provide one explanation for Moscow’s continued opposition to the British-U.S. plans to reshape the sanctions regime facing Iraq. Moscow would likely realize immense profits in the event that sanctions are finally lifted and contracts reportedly worth billions of dollars between Iraq and a number of Russian companies are allowed to go forward. At the same time, Moscow’s enduring support of Iraq in UN Security Council deliberations had ensured that Baghdad accords Russia first priority when granting contracts related to the oil-for-food program. That means that Russia stands to win either if sanctions are lifted–which it has repeatedly urged–or if the oil-for-food program continues in its present form. At the same time, Moscow could lose many of these same contracts if it chooses to embrace the British-U.S. smart sanctions proposal, because Baghdad authorities would likely be incensed by such a move. In addition, officials in both Baghdad and Moscow have stated their belief that implementation of the “smart sanctions” plan might actually result in an open-ended prolongation of UN sanctions on Iraq, thus delaying still further any chance that Moscow might have to reap the benefits of contracts Russian companies have signed with Iraq. Under such circumstances the Bush administration would likely have to offer powerful incentives for the Kremlin to consider abandoning its support for Baghdad (AP, November 10, 25; Reuters, November 25-26;, Interfax, November 26).

Moreover, relations between Moscow and Baghdad, as between Moscow and Washington, must now be seen in the context of a possible move by the United States to extend its antiterror campaign to include military operations against Iraq. Moscow would likely be vehemently opposed to any such action, and a decision by Washington to proceed down this path would pose a severe challenge not only to the current Russian-U.S. partnership with respect to operations in Afghanistan, but to the broader rapprochement that has developed between Russia and the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, a direct escalation or expansion of U.S. military actions directed against Saddam Hussein (which currently include air operations over the so-called “no-fly zones”) would likely leave Putin even more vulnerable to criticism from hardliners at home. These groups have already accused Putin of giving away too much to Washington and the West and would likely raise a storm if they thought Russian interests in the Persian Gulf were also to come under assault as a result of the antiterror war.