British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Moscow today to urge Russia to back a tough stance against Iraq. The visit comes as part of a British diplomatic offensive which this week also saw Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urging Iran to accept forceful demands upon Baghdad.
Prague, 11 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The top British officials' visits to Russia and Iran this week are part of a push by London -- as Washington's closest ally -- to build support for a UN ultimatum demanding Baghdad disarm or face the use of force.
Blair, who held a second and final day of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside Moscow today, told reporters he came to lend a sympathetic ear to Russia's concerns about any U.S.-led military action against Iraq.
But he also made it clear that, while listening to those concerns, he hoped to hear that Moscow will shift away from its long-standing position of regarding Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a regional ally.
Blair said at a joint news conference with Putin outside Moscow today that he does not consider military action against Iraq inevitable. But he said Iraq must disarm and that the best way to assure that is for the UN Security Council to adopt tough arms-inspection guidelines.
"Conflict is not inevitable, but the disarmament of Iraq of all weapons of mass destruction is. And it is plainly preferable that happens through the UN inspections and monitoring regime going in there, doing its job properly, and closing down any possibility of these weapons being developed," Blair said.
In response, Putin said he believes Baghdad is making some progress in cooperating with the international community by agreeing to readmit weapons inspectors. But he said he did not rule out the UN Security Council passing a new resolution which "would take into account the negative experience" that the UN has had over arms inspections.
"We agree with our partners and I agree with my colleague, British Prime Minister [Tony Blair], that we must take into account the negative experience that the international community has had in Iraq with UN weapons inspectors, and in this regard we do not rule out the possibility of reaching some coordinated decision in the shape of a UN Security Council resolution," Putin said.
Putin's statement appeared to suggest Moscow would back tougher guidelines for arms inspections of the sort Washington and London are demanding. But the Russian leader's remarks left open the question of whether Moscow would agree to including a threat to use force against Iraq in any new resolution.
The U.S. and Britain are circulating a draft resolution among the UN Security Council members calling for Iraq to disarm rapidly and reserving the right to use force in the event of noncompliance.
But Russian officials have appeared in recent days to favor a French alternative that would leave any threat of force for a follow-up UN resolution should Iraq fail to comply with toughened inspection guidelines.
Analysts say a key issue in how far Moscow will go in cooperating with Washington's and London's demands upon Iraq may be the question of how much Russia receives in exchange for its support. Russia, like the other permanent Security Council members, has the power to veto any new resolution.
Dafne Ter-Sakarian, analyst for Russia at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said Putin needs to win important concessions from Washington for changing Moscow's position on Iraq in order to justify any shift to the Russian public.
"The main problem that Russia has is how to square old perceptions of what is in the national interest [with] the new pro-Western 'colleagues of Bush' approach that they have. But of course they have to do this from a position of weakness because at the end of the day Russia has not got the clout that it used to have and so the whole Iraq strategy is about trying to find a way to save face if the U.S. goes ahead and invades Iraq," Ter-Sakarian said.
The Russian public has historically seen Iraq as an important Mideast ally, partly due to the two countries good relations during the Soviet era, when Moscow made substantial arms sales to Baghdad. The relationship has continued since the end of the Cold War, and today Russia is one of Baghdad's main trading partners under the UN-approved oil-for-food program.
As one measure of Russian-Iraqi trade relations, Iraq saidin September that Russian companies have won deals worth $40 billion to execute scores of long-term oil and infrastructure projects. Moscow has counted on such business to eventually recoup some $8 billion still owed to it by Baghdad for the Soviet-era arms sales.
Ter-Sakarian said many observers expect Moscow to insist that a tougher Russian position on Baghdad come only in exchange for U.S. guarantees that a new regime in Iraq would honor existing Russian-Iraqi oil deals.
"It is the area in which they have the greatest chance of getting something [where] Putin can turn around to the public and say 'oh, but you know, this is alright because we have secured our economic interests.' [And] it is the only area where there are some possible concessions that the U.S. could make," Ter-Sakarian said.
So far, there is no public indication from either Blair or Putin that oil is under discussion. Before arriving in Moscow, Blair told BBC that he objects to any media talk of Russia exacting a "price" for its cooperation. He said that "obviously there are interests that Russia has in [the Iraq issue], but I don't think it is a question of price tags."
Blair's visit to Moscow began just a day after his foreign minister, Jack Straw, visited Iran on 10 October. There the British diplomatic offensive appeared aimed at reassuring top officials that an attack on Baghdad would not lead to a U.S.-led attack on Tehran.
Straw told Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi: "The threat of Iraq is unique...Iraq is in a league of its own." That message appeared intended to counter worries in Tehran that Washington -- which has dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as forming an "axis of evil" -- might also seek to target Tehran in an expanding war on terror.
Iranian officials said little during Straw's visit to gauge the extent to which the British diplomat succeeded. Kharrazi said only that "we are against war and we think the problems could be solved through diplomatic channels and through the UN."
But in the wake of Straw's visit, the Iranian Army said yesterday that it will seal the country's borders and take no sides if there is a U.S.-led attack on neighboring Iraq. Tehran -- which has had no diplomatic relations with Baghdad since an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s -- has previously said it is pursuing what it calls a policy of "active neutrality" toward the Iraq crisis. Tehran also has no diplomatic ties with Washington, with whom it has had hostile relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.