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Iraq: Plans For Overhaul Of Sanctions Put On Hold

  • Robert McMahon

Russian objections have forced Britain and the United States to temporarily drop plans to push for a change in the way sanctions are enforced against Iraq. Council members will instead vote today to extend the current oil-for-food program, which they agree is flawed but which Iraq favors maintaining for the time being. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the latest developments in the Iraq sanctions negotiations.

United Nations, 3 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite a narrowing of differences during the past month, the UN Security Council is not ready to move forward with a vote on overhauling the Iraqi sanctions regime and will vote to extend the current program instead.

The proposed extension is five months, which would mark a triumph for the government in Baghdad. Iraq had sharply criticized the attempt at "smart sanctions" and said it would only endorse a rollover of the current oil-for-food program.

Western diplomats have been concerned about the weakening of the sanctions regime under the current program, especially Iraq's ability to gain oil revenues outside of United Nations controls.

The extension was decided on 2 July, despite general agreement that the existing oil-for-food program has proved inadequate for Iraqi civilian needs. The program allows Iraq to sell an unlimited amount of oil and then use revenues from a UN-controlled fund to purchase humanitarian supplies and oil-sector materials.

The British-U.S. proposal calls for opening up the flow of civilian goods and tightening controls on items with possible military uses. It has the near unanimous support of council members. But Russia has rejected the proposal, threatening a veto and saying it seeks a comprehensive review of the council's Iraqi sanctions.

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, told reporters yesterday his government agreed on an extension of the current program with the hope of advancing the debate on reforming sanctions in the near future.

"Our criterion in moving ahead is to preserve the strong majority on the council for a draft resolution which is regarded by the majority as having a huge amount of good sense in it, and preserving the validity of that draft resolution means, in the view of the United Kingdom and most members of the council, avoiding a crash over the next couple of days."

Greenstock called the Russian objections "unjustifiable and negative." In early June, Russia supported a council resolution that extended the humanitarian program by one month and committed the council to considering new arrangements for the supply of goods to Iraq.

But Russia has introduced its own resolution that would suspend the sanctions if UN arms inspectors can certify that a long-term program to monitor Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is fully in place. Greenstock said the Russian proposal has little chance of winning support in the council. He said the U.S.-British proposal remains "very much alive."

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters that Russia would continue to promote its proposal. He reiterated that Moscow wants to see a comprehensive solution to the Iraqi sanctions issue and is concerned about sanctions remaining in place indefinitely if the U.S.-British proposal is approved.

"We consider that this proposal is not about just extending or improving the humanitarian program. It's about giving the humanitarian program some new functions and this requires a very thorough study."

Russia is concerned about its commercial interests with Iraq if sanctions are made tougher. Iraq has promised Moscow new oil deals if it votes against sanctions. In addition, Iraq owes Russia an estimated $9 billion in debt. The British-U.S. proposal marked a major shift in the way the two countries approached Iraqi sanctions. Long the strictest members of the council toward Iraq, they have been the main countries placing holds on contracts for humanitarian and oil-sector goods coming to Iraq, out of concern that certain items could have military applications.

But their new proposal acknowledges a concern by a growing number of council members for the lack of development in the Iraqi civilian sector. The proposal calls for most civilian goods to be allowed into the country without scrutiny. The focus of most debate in their proposal is a list of "dual-use" goods that would have to be reviewed by a Security Council committee.

France and China have recently agreed to the items on the list, a key breakthrough. It is not known what specific items have been removed from the proposed list but a Reuters report yesterday said the original 23-page list submitted by the United States had been reduced to 10 pages.

China's ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Yingfan, who is this month's president of the Security Council, confirmed yesterday China has reached basic agreement on the list. But he stopped short of saying China would vote for the British-U.S. proposal over the Russian proposal.

Wang said China welcomes Russia's attempt to try to settle the Iraqi sanctions issue in a comprehensive manner. In comments to reporters, he also stressed that the UN arms inspection mission -- known as UNMOVIC -- must be allowed back into Iraq, as required by council resolutions.

"We must get something that could, on the one hand, improve the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people. On the other hand we should have what is left over of disarmament issues completed. So we wish that UNMOVIC, led by Dr. [Hans] Blix, should be able to go back to Iraq to finish the questions concerning disarmament and with that we would have the lifting of the sanctions."

A consequence of today's vote extending the oil-for-food program is that Iraq is likely to begin exporting oil soon. Iraq suspended exports last month because of the Security Council resolution pledging changes in the overall sanctions regime.

The resolution planned for today makes no mention of the ongoing debate on sanctions. Greenstock said a number of parties -- Britain included -- have made verbal commitments to keep the debate on sanctions alive.