France has become a strong voice for a new Iraqi policy that would take a softer stand on arms inspections and sanctions than that favored by Washington and London.
Prague, 2 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- French political analyst Eric Rouleau is a longtime observer of French policy toward Iraq and the Middle East. His career spans some 30 years at France's daily "Le Monde," followed by three ambassadorial appointments. Today he is an independent writer and frequent commentator for "Le Monde Diplomatique."
RFE/RL contacted Rouleau in Paris to ask him to give his interpretation of France's current policy toward Baghdad. Over the last several years, France has increasingly moved away from its early support of London and Washington in the crisis over Iraq, to develop its own position on arms inspections and sanctions.
The independence of that position was demonstrated in December, when France abstained in a UN Security Council vote approving a British- and American-backed plan to conditionally suspend sanctions if Iraq cooperates in completing remaining arms inspection tasks.
Our correspondent asked Rouleau why France abstained in that key vote. Eric Rouleau:
"France, I think, did not abstain from voting because it is against the principle of a conditional suspension, but because there were other parts in that resolution which France objected to. To put it in a nutshell, France believes that the time has come to lift the sanctions even though we might keep them for some time to come. Why? Because Iraq, in the French government's view, has implemented Security Council Resolution 687 [which imposed sanctions to enforce Iraqi disarmament] even though it is necessary to maintain a variety of permanent controls over Iraq. Ten years have gone by since the sanctions were imposed, and it has been confirmed since that Iraq has no nuclear capacity -- and it has been confirmed more than once by the international nuclear agency. As for the other weapons of mass destruction, like biological or chemical weapons, even if Iraq is still producing it, probably in small quantities, experts in [France] believe there is no way of making sure that production is going on -- because, as everybody knows, you can produce biological and chemical weapons in very small spaces ... [and] in any case they are being produced all over the Middle East, these weapons and nobody is checking on them ... And the last thing I want to say about this is that Iraq ... has no long-range carriers for weapons of mass destruction, even if they might be producing some biological or chemical weapons."
France frequently has said that it favors offering Iraq incentives to cooperate with any new arms monitoring system, something Baghdad so far has refused to do. RFE/RL asked Rouleau to explain what incentives France envisions.
"Well, I will tell you what they mean by incentives. You have to refer to American statements on the subject. The Americans have made several official statements saying that sometimes sanctions would not be lifted until [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein is overthrown or, in other periods over the past few months, they have been saying that it is not enough for Iraq to implement [UN] resolution 687, which deals only with the oil embargo and the weapons of mass destruction, but all other resolutions [too]. As you know, there are something like 75 other resolutions, [and this] in the view of France is not fair because [resolution] 687 is very clear about this, that once the international community would have the feeling that Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction, the oil embargo should be immediately lifted. But this is not the position of the American and British governments on this subject. So when France uses the word incentives it only means one thing, that we have to give the feeling to the Iraqis that we are serious about implementing 687 and that ... we will not maintain the sanctions until Saddam Hussein is overthrown but only [until] Iraq has proven it is not producing anymore any weapons of mass destruction."
Rouleau explains the incentives further:
"Incentives can take many forms. One that has already been suggested is that the Security Council should admit publicly and formally that some progress has been made, for example, on the nuclear issue or the question of long-range carriers (missiles) which have been destroyed. But the American and British governments refuse to admit any progress in the arms inspections, which is a way also of telling Iraq that, whatever they do, nothing will come out of it. So, it is very clear that if the Iraqi government ... has the conviction that whatever they do will lead to nowhere, there will be no incentive for them to do anything to be helpful."
France has said it envisions a new arms inspections regime that would shift the focus from looking for already developed weapons to trying to assure that no new ones are created. Our correspondent asked Rouleau to explain what kind of future controls France would favor placing on Iraq, and how Iraq regards the French proposals.
"Well, there are a set of measures which the French government has proposed, but the main one, the central one, is the following. The French government believes that a very strict control should be maintained on the finances of Iraq, in other words, every single dollar which is earned by Iraq through selling whatever, oil or something else, should be controlled through a bank -- which would of course be picked and chosen by the UN Security Council ... before it is allowed to be spent. ... Saddam Hussein doesn't like the idea that his finances would be controlled by an international bank, which probably would be based in New York or somewhere, because he thinks ... that it will be a denial of his sovereignty as a state."
U.S. and British commentators have at times said that France's desire for an early easing or lifting of sanctions is motivated by France's own financial interests in the Iraqi economy. Paris, like Moscow, is owed thousands of millions of dollars in debts for past arms sales. At the same time, French firms are said to be interested in developing Iraqi oil fields.
Our correspondent asked Rouleau if these are significant factors in shaping a French policy toward Iraq different from that of Washington and London.
"The argument is that France is being mercantile ... Well, I think it is part of the polemics between the French on one side and the British and the Americans on the other ... It makes me smile because the Iraqis are so indebted, they owe tens of thousands of millions of dollars in war reparations to Kuwait alone without speaking of other countries ... The French government, as far as I know, has absolutely no illusions about Iraq reimbursing that to anybody, at least for the next 20 or 30 years. So people in the government here are not so ignorant about financial questions [as] to dream about being reimbursed these two or three thousand million dollars which the Iraqis owe France. Now, about the oil fields, ... no contracts have been signed between Iraq and any government because of the UN sanctions [and] nobody knows what will happen after the oil embargo will be lifted. Iraq would give contracts for exploiting the oil fields to whatever company gives it the best terms. It could be an Asian country, it could be Russia, it could be France, but it could also be American companies."
Rouleau stresses that his views represent his informed perspective of France's position toward Iraq and do not in any way constitute an official statement of French policy.