Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 215

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov wound up a two-day visit to Baghdad this week in which he signaled Moscow’s desire to further solidify its ties with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Russia has taken the lead in promoting what has become an expanding number of foreign civilian flights into Iraq, and most observers see Moscow’s actions in this area as aimed at weakening the UN sanctions regime imposed on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Against this background, it was therefore no surprise that Ivanov issued a number of statements while in Iraq which were undoubtedly more appreciated by government officials in Baghdad than by those in Washington. But on the one key position shared by the Russian and U.S. governments–that Iraq permit the resumption of UN weapons inspections–Ivanov appeared to strike out.

This failure may have been significant. Arab diplomats were quoted as suggesting that Moscow had hoped to be able to persuade Iraqi leaders to agree to resume UN arms inspections in Iraq. Those inspections have not taken place since December 1998, when U.S. and British aircraft launched air attacks on Iraq. Since that time the UN Special Commission for disarming Iraq (UNSCOM) has been disbanded, and a badly divided UN Security Council has formed a new inspection body–the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC)–to oversee the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The Arab diplomats suggested that Moscow hoped to use its influence in the Iraqi capital to convince Saddam Hussein to permit UNMOVIC to begin its work. The Russians apparently hoped to parlay success in this area into an increased role for Moscow in international deliberations aimed at ending the UN’s conflict with Iraq and, presumably, also to raise Russia’s political profile in the Middle East as a whole. According to these same reports, the Russians “promised to work very hard in the UN Security Council” to win the lifting of sanctions on Iraq once Baghdad had accepted the new arms inspectors (UPI, November 13).

Moscow’s exertions in this area were evidenced by Ivanov’s call in Baghdad for lifting the UN embargo on Iraq, but “within the context of international monitoring and in accordance with UN resolutions.” On the day of Ivanov’s arrival in the Iraqi capital, November 13, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker had urged Moscow to pressure Iraq to allow the arms inspectors to return. Ivanov’s visit “certainly gives Russia a good opportunity to urge Iraqi compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and underscore the Security Council and the United Nations position when it comes to that,” Reeker was quoted as saying (AFP, November 14).

But Ivanov was apparently unable to budge the Iraqis. During a joint press with Ivanov on November 14, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz reiterated his government’s rejection of UN Security Council resolution 1284, which was approved last year and stipulates that sanctions can be removed only if Iraqi cooperates fully with UN arms inspectors. “Iraq’s position on resolution 1284 has not changed,” Aziz said (AFP, November 15).

But while the Iraqi refusal may cost Russia the peacemaker role it clearly seeks in the Persian Gulf, there was little to suggest that the rebuff would be a hindrance to continued improved Moscow-Baghdad relations. During his visit to the Iraqi capital, which marked the first trip a Russian foreign minister has made to Iraq since 1994, Ivanov embraced a number of the complaints which Iraq has frequently voiced. Most notably, he charged publicly that the United States and Britain were violating UN resolution in using their warplanes to patrol the no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq. “Air bombing [of Iraqi targets] by U.S. and British air forces is a breach of international law and UN resolutions,” Ivanov told reporters at his joint press conference with Aziz. Ivanov was also quoted as saying that Russia had lost tens of billions of dollars in revenue as a result of the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq. He called on the world community to relieve the pressure on Iraq and to look for new ways to deal with Baghdad (Reuters, November 14).

Ivanov’s visit to Baghdad and his statements in the Iraqi capital were but the latest in a recent series of Russian moves to reiterate its support for Iraq and its challenge to the sanctions regime. On November 9 Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow with the new Iraqi ambassador to Russia, Mozher Al-Duri. Putin was quoted during that meeting as applauding “tight and multifaceted” relations between the two countries, and as saying that Russia’s support for lifting sanctions on Iraq is finding ever more support in the world community (AFP, November 10). Then, a day later, Moscow hosted a visit by Hans Blix, the UN’s top official for Iraq, during which Ivanov reiterated Moscow’s opposition to continued patrolling of the no-fly zones. The two sides reportedly were reduced to agreeing to disagree on this issue, though they did find some common ground on the need to resolve the Iraqi crisis within the context of existing UN Security Council resolutions (AFP, November 11).

As all of this goes on, Russian companies–particularly in the energy sector–are said to be maneuvering furiously in hopes of grabbing lucrative contracts in Iraq once sanctions are finally lifted. According to one Russian report, some 200 different Russian companies have offices in Baghdad. They are involved either in the UN’s Oil-for-Food-Program, or are collecting information and readying themselves for future development projects. According to a Duma official, “Russia’s trade representative office in Baghdad is one of the largest in the Middle East, and many leading oil companies, such as LUKoil and Zarubezhneft, have offices in Iraq.” According to one expert, Russian firms are concerned that they could ultimately lose business to European firms which are also operating aggressively in Iraq. And there is said to be an understanding and some concern in Moscow that the lifting of sanctions–while it could bring new revenues to Russian companies and help Iraq to pay off its US$7 billion debt to Moscow–could also lower world oil prices and thus cut into the healthy revenues Russian companies are now earning on world oil markets (The Russian Journal, November 9).

Ivanov, meanwhile, was scheduled to travel to a host of other Middle Eastern capitals following his visit to Baghdad, and arrived in Egypt yesterday. His trip is clearly being used in an effort to carve out a bigger role for Russia in the region’s now trouble-laden peace process. The Russian foreign minister made a similar attempt last month, but a trip to the region then produced few results. Indeed, Moscow was humiliated by the fact that it was not invited to participate in October’s Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt. The Kremlin has since thrown itself back into Middle Eastern diplomacy, apparently hoping that the failure of the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will open the way for other foreign powers to wield some influence in the region.