The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are holding intensive meetings in New York this week in an attempt to reach a united policy on Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at prospects for an agreement.
Prague, 17 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It has been almost a year since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein evicted UN arms monitors in the wake of U.S. and British air strikes punishing him for refusing access to his most sensitive weapons sites.
Since then, the five permanent Security Council members have been deadlocked in a divisive debate over how to persuade Baghdad to let the inspectors go back to work.
But this week there are signs that the five permanent members of the Security Council finally may be coming close to adopting a united strategy toward Iraq.
It is difficult to say what form any final accord could take. The meetings at the UN are behind closed doors and involve discussions of draft proposals which are constantly being revised and amended in efforts to reach consensus.
But there have been sufficient leaks over the last days to put together a picture of the proceedings.
Analysts say that the main item under discussion is a draft proposal which would combine the different positions of the three Western powers and try to obtain the approval of Russia and China.
The draft is based on an earlier British-Dutch plan which is supported by the United States and allows for suspending sanctions if Iraq complies with arms inspections. Married to this are long-standing proposals by France to ease sanctions if Iraq allows the UN financial controls on its revenues.
The Washington Post reports that the new Western plan envisions lifting the ceiling on how much oil Iraq can sell as soon as a new arms inspection commission is set up. Import and export sanctions would be suspended, but not lifted, after Iraq answers some key questions on its weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, Iraqi revenues would be under UN control to prevent their use for purchasing military goods.
A key element of the plan is that it would require the Security Council to vote to continue the sanctions every 100 days. That would allow Washington or London to unilaterally veto continuing the suspension of sanctions if they felt Iraqi compliance was slipping.
Terrence Taylor, an expert in arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, predicts that if the United States, Britain and France can agree on the details of the proposed plan, Russia and China will endorse it. Terrence Taylor:
"I think there is a determination to try to make progress on this and the only way forward was a marriage of the French proposals and the British, so called, Dutch proposal ... I would find it hard to imagine if France, Britain and America came to a deal that was acceptable to all three, that Russian and China would stand in the way."
Analysts say that Russia is likely to follow France's lead rather than risk being isolated on the Security Council. China, which has not played a major role in the discussions, has traditionally followed Russia's lead on Iraq.
According to the Washington Post, London and Washington also have offered a substantial incentive in the draft proposal to try to gain French and Russian support. The plan would allow foreign companies to invest in the Iraqi oil sector, something both France and Russia are eager to do in order to recoup substantial past loans to Baghdad.
Terrence Taylor says: "France and Russia ... are already owed a great deal of money [by Iraq], mainly for defense equipment of various kinds ... Also, those two countries, given their [previous calls for easing] sanctions ... are certainly going to be favored when it comes to any other kinds of contracts, other legitimate trading that might be allowed in any easing of sanctions. So, I suspect that there is a great deal for those two countries to gain."
Taylor says that one reason the United States, Britain and France have moved closer in recent months to adopting a common position is that they have come to recognize both a return of arms inspectors and controls over Iraq's finances will be needed to prevent Iraq from developing weapons programs that threaten its neighbors.
He says arms inspections are needed to assure Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction and mid-range missiles. And financial controls are needed to assure Iraq does not use its revenues to start new programs or to build up its conventional forces.
The details of any financial controls remain to be worked out. But Taylor says they most likely would require Iraq to put all revenues from its oil exports into an escrow account under international control. This already happens with Iraq's limited oil sales under the UN oil-for-food program.
But Taylor says that any financial control system would face a challenge in dealing with Iraq's already large-scale oil smuggling operations. The smuggling trade already is big enough to maintain Saddam's regime in power despite almost a decade of UN embargoes.
There is no certainty the five permanent Security Council members can reach an agreement through their intensive discussions this week. And even if the council members do agree, their success will only bring them a step closer to the far larger question of whether Baghdad, too, will accept the deal.
So far, Iraq has taken a maximalist position, saying it will not accept any arms inspectors until all sanctions are lifted. But Taylor says that if the five Security Council members can reach a consensus, Baghdad may change its position.
"If [the Iraqis are] faced with something on which the security council is unanimous and no one is shaky on the deal, particularly any of the permanent five [members of the UN security council], the chances are they are more likely to accept it. But I don't see any special signs of flexibility on their part."
Taylor says that Baghdad will base its decision on an assessment of several factors. They include how rigorous any new inspection regimes will be, who comprises the inspection teams, and whether Baghdad believes the international community still possesses the will to use force to punish non-compliance.
The analyst says the Baghdad regime is also likely to weigh the benefits of any lifting of sanctions against its possible costs to the regime's ability to maintain absolute power in Iraq. Ironically, the sanctions have given Saddam Hussein an unprecedented ability to control every phase of Iraq's economy, something that he may now be loathe to give up.
"If sanctions are lifted and there is much more economic activity in Iraq, over time things become more pluralistic and may be more difficult to control. Right at the moment, Saddam Hussein and his regime have a very tight control over everything. Money, food, medicines, all daily commodities [and that] is a very important control mechanism for him. So, they have to reflect on that, too."
That makes it almost impossible to anticipate Iraq's next move -- whatever the results of this week's meetings at the UN.