Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 218

An unexpected Russian effort to rewrite the terms of the Iraq-UN “oil-for-food” program appears to be at the heart of the UN Security Council’s latest confrontation over policy toward Baghdad. The Russian move has reportedly left Moscow isolated. It comes amid a newly intensified attempt by the council’s five permanent members, the so-called P-5, to end nearly a year of deadlock by fashioning a new, comprehensive UN policy toward Iraq. Whether the P-5 was actually on the verge of an agreement over Iraq last week remains the subject of considerable speculation, but it does appear that council members have narrowed their differences on some key issues. The P-5’s long failure to reach a consensus on Iraq nevertheless led to sharp criticism last week by the Security Council’s nonpermanent members. Their comments suggested growing irritation among UN member countries more generally with the secretive deliberations and often ineffective cooperation among the P-5 countries.

The UN Security Council’s permanent members have been divided over Iraq since last December’s U.S.-British air attacks on the Persian Gulf country led Baghdad to cease cooperation with UN arms inspectors. Since then, the P-5 has haggled over details related to the establishment of a new arms monitoring system in Iraq and the terms under which UN sanctions on Baghdad are to be suspended or lifted. In general, Russia has led a group which includes China and, to a lesser degree, France in arguing for a quick lifting of sanctions and the imposition of a less intrusive arms monitoring system. Britain and the United States, conversely, have called for reestablishing a vigorous arms inspection regime and the lifting or suspending of sanctions to be conditioned on evidence that Iraq is cooperating with the arms inspectors.

Various competing draft resolutions embodying these differing approaches have long been in circulation among P-5 members, but a Dutch-British draft embodying the harder-line position–albeit with significant concessions to those more sympathetic to Baghdad–appears to have won the support of a majority of Security Council members in recent weeks. This development has reportedly left Russia even further out of step with the other Security Council members. Indeed, Moscow has continued to come closest to supporting the official Iraqi position, which is essentially that all sanctions should be lifted immediately–and prior to establishing a new arms monitoring regime.

Some cautious optimism that the Dutch-British draft resolution might serve as the basis for agreement on a new Iraqi policy was reported last week as P-5 diplomats met every day on the issue. The negotiations over broader policy toward Iraq, moreover, came as council members considered renewal for another six months of the Iraq-UN oil-for-food program, which allows Baghdad to sell US$5.26 billion worth of oil every six months in order to purchase humanitarian goods for the Iraqi population.

Last week’s unexpected confrontation came on November 19, when Russia refused to go along with the other P-5 members in approving a U.S. resolution which would have extended the oil-for-food program unchanged for another six months. Instead, Moscow introduced amendments which would have formally eliminated the UN revenue cap on Iraqi exports under the program, while doubling to US$600 million Iraq’s allocation on spare parts for its oil industry and introducing automatic approval for certain imports. The United States reportedly did not oppose the changes proposed by Russia in principle, but wanted those issues to be included as part of the broader debate on the comprehensive UN policy toward Iraq.

Due to the impasse, the Security Council voted to extend the previous six-month program period by another two weeks. Iraq rejected that move, charging that the extension was part of a plan by Washington aimed at pressuring Russia and China into backing the Dutch-British draft resolution. Indeed, in an effort to raise the stakes for Moscow, U.S. officials reportedly indicated late last week that Washington is prepared to walk away from months of negotiations if an agreement on arms inspections in Iraq is not reached in December (Reuters, November 19; New York Times, Washington Post, AP, November 20; Dow Jones Newswires, November 22).