Looking to strengthen the deteriorating sanctions regime imposed on Baghdad after the Persian Gulf War, the Bush administration is considering focusing the restrictions solely on Iraq's proscribed weapons programs. According to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most "attractive" approach to boosting international support for the regime would involve "eliminating those items in the sanctions regime that really were of civilian use and benefited people and focus exclusively on weapons of mass destruction."
During the past year, the sanctions regime, which the United Nations put in place after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and which severely restricts Iraq's economic interaction with the rest of the world, has appeared to weaken considerably. Reported violations include rampant smuggling of goods into and out of Iraq, Iraqi receipt of oil surcharges not authorized by the United Nations, and illegal exports of oil from Iraq via its pipeline with Syria.
International support for the regime has also waned, with Russia, France, China, and Arab states voicing strong criticism about the humanitarian impact the sanctions are having on ordinary Iraqi citizens. After returning from a late February tour of Mideast capitals, Powell expressed concern that "more and more nations were saying let's just get rid of the sanctions, let's not worry about inspectors, let's just forget it."
Although the Bush administration has yet to provide any details about its proposal, press reports have indicated that it is considering removing controls on almost all consumer goods exports to Iraq and allowing Iraq's neighbors to purchase Iraqi oil at discounted prices in return for cooperating with the sanctions overhaul. According to the administration, the net impact of such a policy would be to encourage regional support for sanctions, discourage smuggling, and focus international efforts on inhibiting Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Depending on the nature of the changes, alterations to the sanctions regime would need approval from the UN committee that oversees the Iraqi sanctions or the UN Security Council.
The administration appears to have received support for modifying the sanctions regime from Iraq's neighbors. Referring to Powell's recent trip to the region, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We found substantial support for the idea of keeping tight controls on weapons, on money, on smuggling, and taking steps to tighten up on those things at the same time as we were able to smooth out the flow of civilian goods to the civilian population." Russia and France have also expressed interest in the proposal.
The administration's suggested approach does not appear to address Baghdad's continued noncompliance with UN Security Council resolutions demanding inspections to verify that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction programs. No weapons inspectors have been allowed in Iraq since December 1998, when the United States and Britain launched three days of punitive airstrikes against Iraq for its failure to cooperate fully with inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM).
While expressing support for inspections in an interview published March 5 in The Washington Times, Vice President Richard Cheney said the U.S. priority was to revitalize the sanctions regime and then to work on reintroducing inspectors to Iraq. "I think we'd like to see the inspectors back in there," Cheney said, but "I don't think we want to hinge our policy just to the question of whether or not the inspectors go back in there."
Baghdad has not reacted favorably to U.S. interest in modifying the terms of the sanctions and has said that, even if sanctions were lifted, it would not allow weapons inspectors into Iraq unless every other country in the region, including Israel, was subjected to the same scrutiny.