A quarreling United Nations Security Council finally came to a consensus on an executive chairman to lead the newly created UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), unanimously supporting the nomination of Hans Blix, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. representative to the UN and the council's acting president, made the announcement January 26, ending an impasse over the previous nominee, Rolf Ekeus.
The selection of an executive chairman was the first step toward implementation of the most recent Security Council resolution on Iraq. Resolution 1284, adopted unanimously but with key abstentions by Russia, China and France, authorized the creation of UNMOVIC to replace the embattled UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) while promising relaxation of economic sanctions for demonstrated Iraqi cooperation. (See ACT, December 1999.)
The January 17 nomination of Rolf Ekeus, former head of UNSCOM, concluded a grueling month of consultation between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and members of the Security Council over the selection of an agreeable candidate. A UN source said that "lacking consensus on any of the 25 names submitted to the Security Council, the secretary-general nominated the man that he felt was the best for the job." As its executive chairman from 1991-1997, Ekeus directed the lion's share of UNSCOM's identification and destruction of prohibited weapons activities in Iraq.
The Ekeus nomination was short-lived, however. Representatives from Russia, China and France each registered their disapproval of Annan's choice. Noted Qin Huasun, China's permanent representative to the UN, "Candidates from developing countries, who may be better positioned to convince Iraq to cooperate with the council, should be given more attention and consideration." Other members offered less explanation for their opposition. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian representative, stated simply, "The Russian Federation cannot agree with the proposal." Overriding concerns appeared to be a desire to make a clean break from UNSCOM and the likelihood of an Iraqi refusal to cooperate with an UNMOVIC headed by Ekeus.
U.S. officials derided the notion of an "Iraqi veto" over the process, expressing strong support for the confirmation of Ekeus as late as January 24. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, criticizing council resistance, said, "We consider Ambassador Ekeus as so qualified, as somebody who knows the issues very well...and has the respect of the international community."
The Security Council never officially rejected Ekeus, but in subsequent discussions Blix emerged as a compromise acceptable to all sides. With his announcement of the nomination, Holbrooke made clear that the U.S. supported the Blix nod: "As the American representative, let me make clear that we are pleased with his nomination. We think he is an excellent choice." Holbrooke also emphasized that council unanimity should push Iraq closer to cooperation instead of the "very dangerous and ultimately self-damaging role" that it has played in the past.
Hans Blix, longtime Swedish diplomat, headed the IAEA from 1981 to 1997 and has extensive first-hand experience with the Iraq problem, having overseen the first six years of IAEA investigations into Iraq's nuclear program at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War. During his tenure, the IAEA came under fire after the discovery of an extensive Iraqi crash program to build nuclear weapons that had gone undetected by annual IAEA inspections before the war. The IAEA safeguards system has since been strengthened.
Blix's first task is to develop an organizational plan for UNMOVIC and prepare to begin work in Iraq within 45 days after officially assuming his role as executive chairman. Important decisions will need to be made about the composition of the UNMOVIC team and the degree to which it will rely on the expertise of former UNSCOM staff. Perhaps the most challenging hurdle will be to outline the commission's work plan and the key disarmament tasks for Iraq to address before UN sanctions can be lifted. Because each step requires the approval of the Security Council, the battle over UNMOVIC's executive chairman may foreshadow additional struggles as the fledgling organization attempts to define itself.
In addition, though Iraq is legally obligated to comply with Resolution 1284, UNMOVIC's work ultimately depends on Iraqi accession to additional inspections. While Iraq did not condemn Blix with the same ferocity that it rejected the nomination of Ekeus, Iraqi UN Representative Saeed Hassan immediately dismissed the possibility of change in the Iraqi position. "Devil or angel, the new chairman will not change much.... This resolution is not implementable, is not working and will not work," he said. Iraq has long demanded a lifting of sanctions as a prerequisite to future cooperation with disarmament teams.
Iraq Accepts IAEA Inspection Team
However, Iraq did allow the first inspections of any kind since the U.S. and British airstrikes in December 1998, granting an IAEA inspection team access to Iraqi nuclear facilities from January 22-25. As a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iraq has agreed to allow annual inspections of its declared nuclear facilities to ensure compliance with the treaty's prohibitions on nuclear weapons programs. A source close to the UN emphasized that there was no connection between Iraqi acceptance of limited IAEA nuclear inspections and the broader question of accepting UNMOVIC's more intrusive mandate.
The inspection team visited the Iraqi nuclear site at Tuwaitha, a facility containing low-grade nuclear material that housed uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities prior to the Gulf War. The IAEA reported that Iraq "provided the necessary cooperation for the inspection team to perform its activities effectively and efficiently," but noted that the limited nature of its mandate under the NPT Safeguards Agreement "cannot serve as a substitute for the IAEA's activities under the relevant Security Council resolutions."
A 1997 IAEA report to the Security Council stated, "There are no indications that there remains in Iraq any physical capability for the production of amounts of weapon-usable nuclear material of any practical significance."