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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
UN Talks With Iraq Fail to Yield Progress on Weapons Inspections
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Alex Wagner

Marking his first high-level discussions with Baghdad since May 2001, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with Iraqi representatives March 7 in New York but was unable to persuade them to permit the return of international weapons inspectors.

Although the talks produced no progress on Iraq’s refusal to readmit inspectors, in violation of Security Council resolutions and the terms of the 1991 Persian Gulf War cease-fire, Annan remained positive, calling the talks “a good start.” Speaking after briefing the Security Council March 8, Annan said he had continued to demand no conditions on inspections and unimpeded access to suspected Iraqi weapons sites.

After the March 7 meeting, Annan’s spokesman, Fred Ekhart, described the dialogue as “frank and useful.” According to another UN official, the “cordial” atmosphere of the talks was decidedly different than previous discussions, due largely to the personal style of Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who led the Iraqi delegation. The official said that, although Sabri did not accept the terms of UN Resolution 1284, he did not reject them either.

Resolution 1284, passed in December 1999, created the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and charged it with completing Iraq’s disarmament. UNMOVIC succeeded the now-defunct UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which was withdrawn from Iraq in late 1998 prior to U.S.-led air strikes.

Although apparently willing to allow some sort of inspections to resume, Iraq has reportedly demanded prenotification of inspection times and sites, as well as a predetermined timetable for how long inspections can continue—conditions that the United States considers unacceptable.

Perhaps most noteworthy about the dialogue was the willingness of the Iraqi delegation, which included Baghdad’s international weapons inspection liaison, Major General Hussan Amin, to meet for the first time with UNMOVIC chairman Hans Blix. In his March 8 remarks, Annan termed the presence of Blix and Amin “significant,” calling it “an indication” that Iraq is “taking this issue seriously.”

James Cunningham, U.S. deputy ambassador to the UN, was more pessimistic about the meeting, telling reporters that the secretary-general “did not get a positive response from the Iraqis.” Cunningham, however, commended Annan for keeping the focus “where it should be, properly,” that is, on implementation of Security Council resolutions as opposed to Iraq’s grievances with the 11-year sanctions regime.

Annan will meet again with Sabri in New York on April 18 and 19.

U.S. Intentions

The UN meeting came as Vice President Richard Cheney traveled to Middle East capitals in a quest to gauge support for U.S. military intervention against Iraq, but in a March 11 interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice stressed that Cheney was not seeking to warn U.S. friends and allies in the region about an impending attack.

Some analysts have suggested that the U.S. push for inspections, which it believes Iraq will reject, is being carried out simply to force a showdown that would facilitate military action. Washington, in making its case for regime change, has repeatedly emphasized the threat that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses to the world and to his own people. At a March 13 press conference, President George W. Bush said that “all options are on the table” regarding action in Iraq, calling Hussein “a problem” his administration was “going to deal with.”

Although he acknowledged that the Bush administration has “made very clear” that “the region would be better off with a different regime in Baghdad,” Cunningham disputed suggestions that the United States considered the UN dialogue with Iraq merely “a sideshow.”

Russia has taken issue with the “personalization” of the U.S. approach to Iraq. In a March 17 interview on Meet the Press, Russian Defense Minister Sergi Ivanov said that “the problem is not with Saddam Hussein…[but] with weapons of mass destruction.” When asked if Moscow would support a military operation to change the Iraqi regime, Ivanov said only that he hoped the United States would inform Russia if it made such a decision.