Prague, 15 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The French proposal to lift the oil embargo on Iraq entirely appears to be gaining ground following the U.S.' statement that it could allow Iraq unlimited oil exports to buy food and medicine.
The Acting U.S. Representative to the UN, Peter Burleigh, told the UN Security Council yesterday that Washington would consider eliminating the ceiling on the oil-for-food program, which currently restricts Iraq to selling 5,300-million dollars worth of oil every six months. The oil revenues are used by the UN to buy food and medicine for distribution to Iraqis hard hit by UN sanctions against Baghdad.
The U.S. proposal came as the Security Council began discussion of a French plan calling for ending the oil embargo on Iraq and imposing a new, preventive arms inspection regime on Baghdad. Arms inspections are now on hold following Iraq's refusal to let UN inspectors return after punitive U.S.-British air strikes last month.
Analysts say Washington's offer is a sign that the Security Council members, including the U.S. and Britain, will give serious consideration to the French plan as a point of departure for rebuilding a unified Iraqi policy. The Council was strongly divided over last month's strikes, which Moscow and Beijing condemned and Paris has called a mistake.
Georges LeGelt of the l'Institut des Relations Internationales et Strategiques (Institute for International and Strategic Relations) in Paris says France's plan has already achieved its first aim: to resume the debate over Iraq in the Security Council after a month of paralysis caused by the strikes.
"We are clearly now in a paralyzed situation, but we are moving into a more active phase with these two successive events, first the French proposal, then the American, which shows that changes can happen. And that is important for two reasons. One is (the need) to find the way to prevent (Iraqi leader) Saddam (Hussein) from recreating his secret weapons of mass-destruction programs and the other is to avoid any further degradation of the credibility of the United Nations. Because, in the long list of crises (over Iraq), the greatest victim has been the United Nations and the idea of the international community working together to solve problems and make its solutions stick."
But there is likely to be hard bargaining ahead as the Security Council continues to debate the French plan. Other Council members are expected to make proposals of their own. Washington and London are determined to maintain a rigorous arms inspection regime on Iraq, while France is proposing looser arms monitoring for the future.
The details of the French plan have been left deliberately vague to encourage discussion. But they call for coupling lifting of the oil embargo with long-term surveillance of Iraqi armament programs and monitoring of Iraqi finances to prevent expenditures on arms.
LeGelt says the French plan would replace the previous UN strategy of searching for suspected weapons with one of ongoing monitoring of known facilities to assure they are not used again to produce banned weapons.
"The surveillance system would be more passive (than the previous approach). There, of course, are two weak points with such a surveillance system. One has to be satisfied with monitoring facilities which already have been inspected. So, there is the possibility that some arms will remain that have been hidden....(And) there is no way of knowing if the Iraqis are making arms elsewhere in facilities that are now known. But this is a weak point which has existed in UN plans since 1991."
UN resolutions on disarming Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War required arms inspectors to first seek out and destroy weapons of mass destruction before passing on to preventive surveillance. France's plan considers the first phase complete, although arms inspectors have yet to confirm all Iraqi weapons have been destroyed.
LeGelt says preventive surveillance would rely on three mechanisms: First, accounting for all material which goes into the facility throughout its lifetime; second, regular inspections of the site to verify that the accounting corresponds to reality; and third, passive monitoring systems using cameras.
Although France has also proposed monitoring Iraqi finances to assure oil revenues are not used for rearmament, it has not spelled out any mechanisms for doing so.
According to LeGelt, the aim is to monitor all Iraqi oil production in order to know the quantity which is pumped and exported, and then to verify that profits are not used for buying prohibited items. But the French proposal makes no mention of setting up an escrow account to collect oil sales and authorize spending, such as that currently used by the oil-for-food program.
LeGelt says France recognizes there are several weak points to the plan which will generate heated discussion in the Security Council.
"I think there are at least two weak points here and no-one is under any illusions about them. One is that it will be no easier to control Iraqi oil production than it is to be sure the Iraqis are not secretly producing weapons. Second, even before the Gulf War, and much more so since, the Iraqis have acquired a considerable experience in creating front organizations abroad to hide the smuggling of equipment into the country."
But the analyst says France is willing to leave open the question of how to carry out its proposals to the Security Council as part of the process of rebuilding a new UN consensus on how to deal with Iraq.