Prague, 18 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The world has been through it all before. Once again, Iraq has suspended cooperation with United Nations (UN) weapons inspectors and called for a restructuring of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with supervising Baghdad's disarmament.
Up to now, these confrontations have played out according to a time-tested pattern: weeks of impasse followed by growing threats from Washington lead to a last-minute compromise brokered by the United Nations or some other third party. And each time, Baghdad wins a little more breathing space.
That is what happened in February, when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan secured a last-minute deal that prevented Washington and London from carrying out their threat to bomb Baghdad while allowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to save face, by making diplomats responsible for the inspection of special presidential sites. Baghdad's refusal to open those sights to foreign weapons inspectors had touched off the crisis, and the compromise was hailed in some quarters at the time, though many commentators pointed out that it could only be a temporary solution.
And as the current crisis demonstrates, those commentators were right. This time, however, the United States is not making very threatening noises. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an editorial published in The New York Times this week, admitted that the U.S. administration recently prevailed on U.N. staff not to carry out a set of surprise inspections in Iraq. Albright said the U.S. move was tactical, as Washington did not want to give Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a pretext to claim a provocation.
But the U.S. admission, ironically, adds weight to Iraq's argument that UNSCOM is controlled by Washington. As Baghdad noted this week, if Washington has the power to call off UNSCOM inspections, then this proves that the U.N. personnel simply do Washington's bidding.
Albright says the United States is determined to see sanctions against Iraq remain until the country fully disarms. The UN Security Council has now drafted letters supporting its inspectors in Iraq, but leaving it up to them to decide whether to actually challenge the Iraqi ban on further searches.
Baghdad, it appears, is determined to exploit this lack of resolve to maximum advantage. Iraq's ambassador to the U.N., Nizar Hamdoon, reminded the world this week that "the Iraqi market carries big potential." He asked Iraq's neighbors to defy the current sanctions regime by resuming full trade. He even called on U.S. companies to exert influence on Washington to break the sanctions.
French, Russian and Chinese oil companies have already signed deals to develop huge Iraqi oil fields once political restrictions are lifted and Hamdoon is undoubtedly hoping to exploit the growing "sanctions fatigue" among some of these Security Council nations.
Libya, another oil-rich nation, which has been laboring under similar U.N. isolation resulting from its refusal to hand over suspects in the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, may provide some inspiration.
This summer, Tripoli signed a landmark friendship and cooperation treaty with Italy, while hosting a series of prominent visitors, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who flew to the country personally to greet its leader, Muammar Ghadaffi. Ghadaffi was once reviled in language often used to describe Saddam Hussein -- so could the same scenario soon unfold in Baghdad?
Last winter, at the height of the previous crisis with Baghdad, Richard Haas, a senior adviser to former U.S. President George Bush, wrote a newspaper commentary in which he noted that "sanctions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves." Haas urged the U.S. to push strongly for the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, through vigorous inspections, and then encourage the quick lifting of UN sanctions. Haas wrote that indefinite economic sanctions will not topple Saddam Hussein and will probably end up being counterproductive. In his words, "keeping sanctions in place for as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power could undermine international support for ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction."
Iraq, with the world's second-largest proven oil reserves, appears to believe that moment has arrived.