Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 5

By Dr. Evgueni Novikov

Recent reports have suggested that the United States is now prepared to scrap its plans for going to war in Iraq, provided that Saddam Hussein voluntarily resigns and leaves the country. Precisely this point was made by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in an interview given to ABC on January 20. Moreover, international media have reported on efforts by Arab governments to persuade Saddam to step down and accept political asylum abroad.

But such reports raise an interesting question: who exactly is in a position to approach the Iraqi dictator with this proposition? Would it be someone from his inner circle? Highly unlikely. A suggestion of this sort could cost that person his life. Perhaps a high-ranking Arab official? Again, unlikely. A representative of a Persian Gulf country recently made the effort and for his effrontery got a cold shoulder (literally; his air conditioning was reportedly shut off after his Iraqi interlocutors stalked out of the room).

Indeed, the only candidate who might suggest exile for the Iraqi leader with any chance of success is someone who enjoys Saddam’s complete trust and whose recommendations have in the past proved useful to him.

One of the few men in the world who fits this unusual job profile is Evgueni Primakov, the former Russian Prime Minister and one-time head of the country’s main foreign intelligence branch. Primakov is an Arabist and a seasoned diplomat who, during the Gulf War, conducted negotiations with Baghdad on behalf of the Soviet government.

More importantly, Primakov has a friendship with Saddam Hussein that dates back to the 1960s, when Primakov received his first foreign assignment as the Pravda newspaper’s Cairo correspondent. According to Primakov, the two men met initially in 1969, before Saddam became Iraqi president. That led to numerous other meetings over a period of more than twenty years.

“My good relationship with Saddam Hussein is not a big secret,” Primakov wrote in a 1991 Russian newspaper article: “I believe that we developed a very close relationship.” Primakov went on to say that, eventually, he could speak to Saddam “without any diplomatic precautions.” He also suggested that he had made a study of the Iraqi leader’s “psychological characteristics.”

Primakov made use of this personal relationship in 1991, when then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dispatched him to Iraq in a last ditch effort to get Saddam to withdraw Iraqi troops from Kuwait. It is commonly believed that Primakov failed in this mission, thus compelling U.S.-led forces to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.

However, a closer examination of these events suggests the intriguing possibility that Primakov may have been pursuing a different agenda in Baghdad back in 1991, and that his mission may actually have produced concrete, if generally unrecognized, results.

A bit of background is in order. As is generally known, the U.S. government was concerned as it launched Operation “Desert Storm” that Saddam might employ chemical weapons against the allied troops–or against Israel or Saudi Arabia–much as it had done earlier in its war with Iran. It remains something of a mystery why the Iraqi strongman did not resort to this strategy, even after his army had been virtually wiped out and thousands of Iraqi soldiers had begun passively surrendering to the advancing coalition forces.

Equally bewildering (including to coalition commander General Norman Schwarzkopf), was President George H. W. Bush’s order to terminate ground operations barely one hundred hours after they had begun. In fact, allied forces needed just another day or two to annihilate the Republican Guards, Saddam’s most elite military force and a major pillar of the regime’s power.

The first Bush Administration’s explanations for this hesitancy are well-known. Washington reportedly felt that the relevant UN resolutions authorized only the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Some said the administration also feared that Saddam’s forced ouster, if pursued, might lead to a partition of Iraq and a strengthening of Iran’s position in the region.

But there is another explanation for the U.S. failure to seek a more complete victory in Iraq. It involves the possibility that Primakov’s 1991 visit to Baghdad may in fact have helped to finalize a deal between the United States and the Soviet Union on the eve of Operation “Desert Storm.” This deal may have involved a quid pro quo whereby Saddam’s regime was spared in exchange for an Iraqi agreement not to use chemical weapons against coalition forces.

This hypothesis helps to explain a number of developments that came after the Gulf War. President Bush, for example, was able to claim a significant military victory–the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait–with only minimal casualties on the side of coalition forces. For his part, Saddam not only survived, but was able to present this fact as proof of an Iraqi victory of sorts over the U.S.-led coalition.

Moscow also reaped some tasty fruit from this outcome. It retained an ally in Baghdad and benefited monetarily from continued trade with Iraq–especially from the profitable deals it was able to negotiate under the subsequent UN “Oil-For-Food” program. And, if true, all this was thanks to Primakov’s diplomatic skills and his longtime friendship with the Iraqi dictator.

Now fast-forward more than a decade. Saddam is in big trouble once again while Russia faces, as it did in 1991, the prospect of a significant geopolitical and economic setback. It would be no accident, therefore, if current Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled a page out of Mikhail Gorbachev’s playbook and sent Primakov off once again to meet with his old friend in Baghdad in hopes of arranging a second Iraqi/U.S./Russian peace deal.

And that may be just what is happening. On January 10 of this year, for example, the Russian website quoted Arab mass media and the Italian newspaper La Republica in reporting that Primakov, when “not busy performing his duties in the [Russian] Chamber of Commerce and Industry…has been visiting Baghdad trying to persuade Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq.” Moreover, an Arab newspaper has suggested that the alleged Primakov mission may have met with some success. It reported rumors that Primakov is currently making preparations for a visit to Iraq by the Russian president. It is allegedly hoped that this “visit is to become a great peace mission.”

Other recent developments, while hardly conclusive, also lend some credence to this hypothesis. In October of last year, for example, Primakov traveled to the United States at the invitation of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. While in Washington Primakov met with such key Bush Administration officials as Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Later, after his return to Russia, Primakov indicated that Iraq had figured very prominently in his U.S. talks.

It seems probable, moreover, that Primakov held at least one, and possibly several, meetings with Saddam Hussein sometime in November or December of last year. Russian press reports also indicate that Primakov was invited to a working meeting with Putin on December 28. The above time-line suggests the possibility that Iraq was on the agenda at that meeting. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that, only two weeks after his meeting with the Russian president, Primakov departed on a tour of the Middle East that included stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. He held talks with high level officials in each of those countries.

Against this background, some conjecture may be in order. It is not inconceivable that, aware of Primakov’s past success in delicate dealings with Saddam Hussein, the Bush Administration is now willing to give Moscow at least a shot at negotiating some sort of arrangement with his regime.

And such a deal seems most likely to involve a commitment by the United States to forego military operations against Iraq in the event that the Iraqi strongman and his inner circle agree to leave the country. Exile would ensure Iraq’s disarmament and Saddam’s own removal from the scene, two key Bush Administration goals. It would also spare the Administration the political costs of unleashing a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular in many parts of the world.

Indeed, it is possible that Primakov’s January visit to the Gulf was focused precisely on this effort to secure Saddam’s voluntary departure. The Iranian newspaper Entechab alluded to this possibility on the eve of Primakov’s arrival in the Gulf. Basing its report on admittedly sparse evidence, the newspaper nonetheless concluded that the Bush Administration was not averse to seeking a bloodless way out of the current conflict, and that it had turned to the Kremlin for some help in the matter. Among other things, the newspaper referred to earlier statements by Primakov suggesting Putin’s readiness to visit Baghdad in order to negotiate Saddam’s departure.

Whether Washington and Moscow are in fact exploring the possibility of voluntary exile for Saddam Hussein will become clearer in the weeks ahead. One recent indication that they might be came on February 20, when the Italian parliament debated a proposal under which Italy would offer political asylum to the Iraqi leader. Given Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s outspoken support for U.S. policy toward Iraq, the parliamentary motion raised the possibility of some backstage dealing between Washington and Rome toward this end.

What does seem undeniable amid such speculation is that all the players primarily involved in the Iraq crisis would benefit if a Kremlin-dispatched plane arrived soon in Baghdad to transport Saddam Hussein to North Korea or some other such attractive foreign locale. In this context it is also worth keeping in mind, however, that the blandishments of even so artful a negotiator as Primakov would likely come to naught absent U.S. determination–and its deployment of a military force capable on its own of toppling Saddam and disarming Iraq.

Dr. Evgueni Novikov is Director of the International Terrorism Program, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC