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Iraq: Arms Watchdogs Welcome Overhaul Of UN Sanctions Regime

  • Robert McMahon

Arms monitoring experts have welcomed the UN Security Council action streamlining the Iraqi sanctions program as a more efficient way of containing Iraq's military potential. The new measure creates a lengthy list of "dual-use" goods that must be scrutinized before entering Iraq and allows humanitarian goods to flow more freely into the country. Some experts say the move could put more pressure on the Iraqi regime to permit inspectors back into the country.

United Nations, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Experts familiar with Iraq's weapons programs have welcomed the UN Security Council's approval of a resolution overhauling the sanctions regime as both a practical and political achievement.

The new program is the most sweeping change to the oil-for-food program since it began in 1996 to help provide humanitarian goods to Iraqi civilians suffering under sanctions. It creates a goods-review list of thousands of items that could be used in any potential biological, chemical, nuclear, or ballistic missile programs, which Iraq has been ordered to dismantle.

Previously, the council's Iraq Sanctions Committee reviewed almost all of Iraq's proposed purchases to keep Iraq from obtaining items useful for rearmament. Any committee member could block or hold an item.

Under the new program, two UN inspection bodies -- the monitoring commission for Iraq and the International Atomic Energy Agency -- will examine all contracts to see if they contain items on the goods-review list. Items covered by the list will be forwarded to the council's sanctions committee for either prompt approval or denial. All other contracts are to be automatically approved by UN officials.

This marks a major improvement in the goods-review process, says David Cortright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, an organization that seeks the elimination of weapons of mass destruction through peaceful means.

Cortright, who recently helped write a review of the Iraqi sanctions program (see, tells RFE/RL that the Iraqi government now faces greater blame if its citizens have problems under the oil-for-food program. "The government of Iraq has responsibility for the distribution of all these goods, so if there are continuing humanitarian problems or social problems within Iraq, the responsibility is more and more that of the Iraqi government itself, because it is receiving plenty of oil revenue. And now, under this new system, there will be no restriction on the civilian goods that could be imported."

Cortright says the council's unanimous vote on the resolution -- including Iraq's ally Russia and its Arab neighbor Syria -- was also significant. He says this puts more pressure on Iraq to allow UN inspectors back into the country for the first time since 1998. "Its options have narrowed as a result of this resolution, and I think it does put pressure on them to comply now and allow these inspectors [in] and hopefully complete the disarmament process and get this ordeal behind us and behind them."

Security Council diplomats say the Iraqi government has received hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues outside of the oil-for-food program due to smuggling and illegal surcharges on oil. But they say Iraq still relies on the UN program for at least 80 percent of its revenues.

This gives the UN system a considerable degree of control over any Iraqi efforts to rebuild its weapons of mass destruction, according to experts at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Relations.

Amin Tarzi is an expert on Iraqi nuclear and ballistic missile systems at the center. He tells RFE/RL that the introduction of a goods-review list is a positive step and will help keep the focus on military containment.

There are items that have legitimate uses but that can also be used for ballistic missiles, Tarzi says, but UN weapons experts now have considerable information about how such items are diverted for illicit means. "I think we have enough experience. The Iraqis are masters in cheating and reverse engineering and basically using different products for different uses and means. However, I think we can [detect] a vast amount of it."

Jonathan Tucker is an expert on biological and chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies and served as an inspector for the previous UN inspection mission in Iraq in 1995. He describes some of the dual-use items that arms watchdogs are concerned about: "It would be equipment that is suitable for legitimate biotechnology but that could be easily diverted to production of biological weapons, and then for chemical weapons. It would be equipment suitable for producing highly toxic or corrosive materials."

Tucker says that, in the past, Iraq has used vaccine facilities and a bio-pesticide plant to produce illicit biological agents. He says he has not yet seen the new goods-review list but stressed that equipment that has legitimate commercial uses can be easily diverted to biological weapons production, posing a dilemma to those scrutinizing contracts for goods under the UN program.

"The problem in the past is that they have had a capacity much greater than their domestic requirements. And that has aroused suspicion. They say they are going to market these vaccines to other countries, but it's probably just a cover for having a capacity to build biological agents."

The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. They are to remain in effect until UN inspectors confirm Iraq has destroyed its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and limits the range of its ballistic missiles to 150 kilometers. UN resolutions also prohibit the sale or supply to Iraq of all arms and related materials.