French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine surprised many when, in the wake of the recent U.S. and British bombings near Baghdad, he said Paris wants to see a total lifting of the economic sanctions on Iraq. That appeared to signal a new position for France, which until now had spoken only of easing sanctions to induce Iraq to readmit arms inspectors. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with a French military analyst about what lies behind Vedrine's remarks.
Prague, 1 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- France made no secret of its anger at seeing U.S. and British planes strike air-defense facilities near Baghdad last month in the heaviest bombing of Iraq in over two years.
Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine called the 16 February air strikes illegal, even though the United States and Britain said they were necessary to protect their warplanes patrolling the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.
Vedrine went even further. The minister surprised many observers by saying he not only disapproves of bombing Iraq, he also would like to see economic sanctions on Baghdad fully lifted. That represented a dramatic ratcheting-up of France's usual demands, which are that the UN sanctions on Iraq should be eased.
France has repeatedly argued in the past that easing the sanctions would induce Iraq to re-admit UN weapons inspectors. Baghdad banned arms-control experts from the country after large-scale U.S. and British air strikes more than two years ago to try to force Iraq to comply with inspections.
Our correspondent asked Georges Le Guelte, an arms-control expert with the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (Institut des Relations Internationales et Strategiques) in Paris, whether France is now shifting its stance on sanctions.
Le Guelte said Vedrine's remarks are best seen as an expression of France's frustration -- and its desire to get the United States to consider its existing proposals -- than any change of its previous position.
"There is an element of negotiation [strategy] here, because [France's] demand to ease sanctions has gone nowhere and it's normal now to up the stakes. As always, when parties are at odds, one knows that the meeting point will be somewhere between the two positions. And the more extreme your position is, the greater are the chances that the end result will be closer to what you want."
Le Guelte says that Paris feels Washington and London have never given adequate consideration to a general plan for softening sanctions and regaining Iraqi cooperation on arms inspections that France put forth in late 1998.
The proposal, which was left deliberately vague to encourage discussion, called for coupling an easing and, later, lifting of the sanctions with long-term surveillance of Iraq's armament programs. Some French policy experts also recommended in-country monitoring of Baghdad's finances to prevent future Iraqi expenditures to build weapons of mass destruction.
The UN Security Council agreed in late 1999 to suspend sanctions on importing civilian goods if Iraq would cooperate with a modified arms monitoring commission, called UNMOVIC. But France -- along with Russia and China -- abstained from the vote. Paris felt the new offer did not spell out exactly what disarmament measures Baghdad had to meet, and when, before sanctions would be suspended. Moscow and Beijing also thought the offer did not go far enough to end sanctions.
Le Guelte says that French policy makers feel that the U.S. and British refusal to create a firmer timetable for easing sanctions amounted to ignoring France's proposal completely. As a result, Paris has put no further proposals forward since.
"The French have gotten the impression that when they propose something, it is not even looked at or studied. So one can understand the hesitancy of the French government to re-launch a proposal that was not just rejected but was not even taken into consideration."
The analyst says that with their own ideas ignored, many in Paris are now skeptical of talk in the United States and Britain of easing sanctions in exchange for tightening controls over arms shipments to Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed that strategy publicly last month, while noting that U.S. President George W. Bush himself has yet to make any decision pending talks with other countries.
Le Guelte says that Powell's proposal to move now to what are popularly called "smarter" sanctions would only continue Washington's policy of trying to assure Iraq's disarmament by militarily isolating it.
Instead, Le Guelte says, France continues to seek a political solution that would readmit the arms inspectors:
"The only chance to [readmit the inspectors] is through a broad-based political solution around which one can rebuild an international consensus involving a great number of countries including, first and foremost, Russia.
"If Saddam [Hussein] is faced by a whole coalition of countries, including his traditional allies such as the Russians, I think his position would be much weaker then it is now."
Talks between the UN and Iraq in New York this week -- the first detailed meeting between the two sides in two years -- ended with no progress in getting UNMOVIC into Iraq. Foreign Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf reiterated Baghdad's stand that it has fully disarmed and demanded all sanctions be lifted. He referred to UNMOVIC as merely a "detail" with which Baghdad refuses to deal.
Le Guelte says that without arms inspectors inside Iraq, France worries Baghdad will maintain an ability to develop weapons of mass destruction even if there are stepped-up international efforts to seal the country off from obtaining military goods.
He calls the example of Chinese fiber-optics experts helping Baghdad to upgrade its air-defense systems -- the catalyst for last month's U.S. and British air strikes -- evidence that military sanctions will not be sufficient. In his view, the danger is that, even if other countries cooperate, their organizations and companies may not.
"Right now there is a real debate going on between the U.S. and China over Chinese organizations providing Iraq with fiber-optic cables which enable them to upgrade their air-defense systems. But judging by the recent behavior of the Chinese government, it seems these were deals that were not perfectly controlled by the Chinese authorities themselves."
China said on 27 February that it is ready to investigate U.S. charges that a Chinese company and Chinese technicians assisted Iraq in upgrading its air defenses. China's telecommunications industry has boomed in the last few years, with hundreds of companies, many of them private, now engaging in the production and export of telecommunications equipment.