UN and Iraqi negotiators are due to meet on 4 and 5 July in Vienna for the latest round of talks centering on the return of arms inspectors to Iraq. But prospects for progress look dim as Baghdad this week reiterated its demand that any return be preceded by a suspension of the sanctions regime -- a demand the UN rejects.
Prague, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As this week's meeting with the UN approaches, Iraqi officials are signaling they are less interested in talking about the return of arms inspectors -- as the UN wants -- than about ending sanctions.
Looking ahead to the talks on 4-5 July in Vienna, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters early this week that "we hope this round will achieve a step forward towards a complete lifting of the immoral and criminal embargo."
That phrasing echoed demands in the Iraqi press that the sanctions should be lifted before any agreement can be reached on allowing UN weapons inspectors back into the country. Last week, the daily "Babel" -- run by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's oldest son, Uday -- said that "the world body should first lift the unjust embargo on our country."
Similarly, Iraq's "al-Thawra" -- the newspaper of the ruling Baath party -- linked any progress in the new round of talks to the UN answering a list of questions Baghdad has previously sent to the Security Council. The questions include demands to know when the sanctions might end, when the no-fly zones imposed by the United States and Britain over Iraq might be lifted, and what the UN plans to do about Washington saying it is determined to have a regime change in Baghdad.
The cascade of Iraqi statements in the run-up to this week's Vienna meeting has elicited some cautionary responses from top UN officials, who are trying to keep the talks focused on arms inspections.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned late last month that the talks with Iraq cannot go on forever and said he hoped the Vienna meeting would be decisive. He also said that he had passed Iraq's questions on to the Security Council but had not yet received any answers.
Analysts say that Iraq publicly placing conditions on the upcoming talks could spell little chance for a breakthrough in Vienna, despite the fact this will be the third round of talks since March. Two previous rounds took place in New York but ended with few signs of progress.
The last round, in early May, saw the first face-to-face discussions between the Iraqi delegation and Hans Blix, the head of the UN's recently reorganized weapons inspection team, which has not yet been allowed to visit Baghdad.
But the meeting ended with both sides saying only that they had raised their concerns in a cordial atmosphere and had agreed to a follow-up session. That session was later scheduled to be held in Vienna due to Iraq's complaints that some members of its delegation were having trouble getting U.S. visas in a timely fashion.
Jon Wolfsthal, the deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C., says that Iraq placing conditions on the talks may indicate that Baghdad has little interest in negotiating a return of arms inspectors.
"Essentially, Iraq is happy with the status quo. It does not want UN inspectors poking around uncovering what is certainly a restarting of their nuclear program, their biological weapons program, and their ballistic-missile work. And the sanctions in some ways work to Saddam Hussein's advantage. He can continue to oppress his people and continue to blame the West and the outside for the plight of children or the average people in Iraq."
He continues: "So, he really has very little incentive to make any concessions regarding the inspections and that's why, I think, we have seen this linkage to a number of other old gripes by the Iraqi regime."
However, the analyst says the new round could see Baghdad negotiating with the UN over symbolic concessions, such as allowing arms inspection chief Blix to visit Baghdad for talks with officials. He says Iraq may hope to exchange such a concession -- which would not include actual arms inspections -- for the UN taking action on some Iraqi demands, such as for looser controls over Iraqi oil pricing.
The UN Sanctions Committee currently prices Iraqi oil after it is loaded aboard tankers, a policy intended to reduce Iraq's ability to demand surcharges from buyers in contravention of the oil-for-food program. Iraq has frequently protested against the retroactive pricing policy, and its complaints are supported by Moscow, which says the policy is reducing profits for the Russian oil companies that handle the bulk of Iraq's oil trade. Possible modifications of the policy are presently under discussion in the UN Sanctions Committee in New York.
But if Iraq hopes to exchange symbolic concessions over arms inspections for changes in the sanctions policy, it is likely to be strongly resisted by the U.S. and Britain -- the strongest supporters of the sanctions regime. Both Washington and London have repeatedly said they will accept nothing from the talks short of full compliance with arms inspections and that they have little patience for seeing the negotiations drag out through discussion of half-steps.
Still, analysts say that while U.S. patience with Iraq is thin, there is little probability that any failure of the talks to restart arms inspections will be immediately punished by Washington through military action. That prospect was raised late last year by official U.S. statements that Washington was keeping all options open for removing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the absence of stringent arms inspections. But talk of military solutions diminished after U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair jointly said in April that they are undertaking no such planning at the moment.
Wolfsthal says that Washington is giving priority in the Middle East to easing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and does not want to complicate that task by attacking Iraq. He says that could mean the UN-Iraqi talks will continue for additional rounds, even though they offer little prospect of solving the arms inspections crisis.
"Patience in Washington is extremely thin for Saddam Hussein. There are clearly major actors in the administration who simply want to go in and get Saddam and deal with Iraq once and for all. But it is clear that in the current environment in the Middle East, with President Bush laying out a new set of guidelines for a Middle East peace plan, seeking the ouster of Yasser Arafat and trying to fight the global war on terrorism, that they are not about to start shooting at Iraq anytime soon."
He continues: "So, unless there really was a desire in Washington to either reach a negotiated solution with Saddam Hussein, or to reach a military solution with Saddam Hussein, I think we are going to continue to see the UN going in and talking and trying to work out an arrangement but with very little hope of success."
Iraq has barred UN arms monitors from working in the country since they were withdrawn in late 1998 before U.S. and British air strikes intended to punish Baghdad for failing to cooperate with weapons inspections. The UN requires Iraq to prove through arms inspections that it has no more weapons of mass destruction before sanctions can be lifted.
The UN imposed the sanctions on Iraq following Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.