As the U.S. repeatedly warns Iraq to readmit arms inspectors or face unspecified consequences, Baghdad in recent weeks has offered to renew its talks with the UN over weapons monitoring. But the Iraqi move raises several questions, including whether Baghdad might now in fact agree to arms inspections or whether it is merely playing for time. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with political analysts about the developments.
Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since 11 September, the U.S. administration has steadily warned Baghdad its weapons of mass destruction programs could make it a target of the war on terror.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said Baghdad must readmit UN arms inspectors -- banned from Iraq since late 1998 -- or face new U.S. actions. The nature of those actions has been left deliberately vague, but the administration has said all options -- including military ones -- are open. The U.S. president also has described Baghdad as part of an "axis of evil," invoking the language America used to describe its archenemies in World War II.
Iraq has responded by dispatching top officials to Russia, China, the EU, several Gulf Arab states, and Iran to argue that Washington is preparing to unilaterally attack it. And Baghdad has coupled its diplomatic initiatives with an offer to restart its dialogue with the UN without preconditions. That offer was publicly accepted by the UN on 4 February, though no date for the renewed talks has yet been set.
As the UN and Iraq prepare to talk, it is too early to know whether Baghdad will agree to directly address the issue of weapons monitoring or whether -- as in the past -- it will link any cooperation on arms inspections to the UN first lifting all sanctions. Iraq and the UN last held talks in February 2001, but Secretary-General Kofi Annan declined to hold a follow-up round later in the year, reportedly because key UN Security Council members could not agree on a common policy.
Now, Iraq's sudden offer to restart talks is leading many analysts to try to guess Baghdad's motives. Some speculate that Baghdad wants to win time against mounting U.S. pressure and that Iraq may now see readmitting the arms inspectors as its best strategy for keeping Washington at bay.
George Joffe, a regional expert at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University in England, says Iraq is taking very seriously the threats the U.S. is making against it, particularly in the wake of the campaign in Afghanistan. And he says Baghdad appears to now be looking for a mechanism by which it can defuse or redirect American anger.
But he says that even as Baghdad reopens talks with the UN, President Saddam Hussein's regime may have yet to make up its mind on whether readmitting the arms inspections would serve its interests or not.
"All that's happened so far is that Iraq has offered to renew dialogue with the UN, not that they are going to let the inspection teams to go back, not that they accept the resolutions under which they should operate, nor indeed that they accept the inspection team that is being constructed," Joffe says. "So, we are in very early days and it is very difficult to say whether this is a genuine attempt to accept the supremacy of the UN, in fact the United States, or whether it is simply a delaying tactic. My guess is that they don't know themselves in Baghdad and that they are feeling their way to see how they have to go and what they have to accept and to what degree this will, in fact, deflect American anger."
Joffe says that in the renewed talks with the UN, Baghdad is certain to try as much as possible to limit the accessibility of Iraqi sites to arms inspectors. That means the negotiations could be lengthy, something which at the very least wins Baghdad time. In an effort to counter just such an Iraqi strategy, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that any UN talks with Baghdad should be "very short" and Iraq must accept existing UN terms.
Other analysts predict that Iraq may initially show more flexibility in the renewed talks with the UN than it has in the past, when talks have broken down over Baghdad's linking all progress to ending the sanctions first.
William Hopkinson, a security expert with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says he expects Baghdad will now waive that demand in hopes of winning sympathy in the Arab world and elsewhere by appearing to be ready to negotiate in earnest.
"Given that [negotiations] ran into the ground when they tried that tactic before, they could say we are being so reasonable that we aren't even insisting on the lifting of sanctions before we look at this now," Hopkinson says. "I think there is a negotiating trick to be taken by the Iraqis there."
But the analyst says any negotiations are still likely to end in deadlock due both to Iraq's desire to hide its weapons programs from inspectors and to Washington's insistence that the inspectors be allowed to work unfettered.
Hopkinson predicts the Iraqi negotiating strategy will focus on trying to place geographic or time limitations on any renewed arms monitoring.
"There are two sorts of limitations you can put quite simply [on arms monitoring]. One is geography, [as in saying,] 'You can't go here or there.' The other is time. And you can have a mixture of those, you know, [such as] you must serve 72 hours notice before you are coming in," Hopkinson says. "There are other things that you can insist on, such as trying to [require] the inspectors to limit what they can take away from the country [or] to insist that any analysis of things found should take place under international supervision or with Iraqi participation."
Hopkinson says that, on the other side, the U.S. is likely to be just as determined not to bargain. "Given the American pressures, that is the pressures in the United States' system, they will not wish to let the inspectors in on anything that would be on a restricted basis and indeed they might not really wish to have an agreement with Iraq at all," Hopkinson says. "They would rather have Iraq, as it were, out in the cold and in the dock rather than looking as if it were starting to be a more responsible negotiating partner again."
That may mean the renewed UN-Iraq dialogue has little chance of resulting in a return of the arms inspectors and that at the end of the process the mounting U.S.-Iraq confrontation will remain unresolved.
For now, few analysts are ready to predict where that U.S.-Iraq confrontation might finally end. But several say they see signs that Washington increasingly sees a regime change in Iraq as the only acceptable solution.
George Joffe says, "I think the Bush administration would regard Iraq allowing the inspectors to go back as one of the nightmare scenarios, because it would actually then prevent it from doing what I think it really wants to do, which is to remove the regime from power. So, in a sense [even readmitting arms inspectors] will only delay things. And I am quite certain that other reasons will be found by the administration to complain about Iraqi non-compliance and, in the end, to continue the agenda which I think it has really set itself, which is to get rid of Saddam Hussein."
The U.S. verbal pressure on Iraq continued to grow this week, with Powell making some of his sharpest comments regarding Baghdad ever.
Powell told a Congressional committee that Bush is set on a "regime change" in Iraq and said that task is something the United States "might have to do alone." He gave no details but said the U.S. president is making "the most serious assessment of options that one might imagine."