UN-Iraq Talks Fail to Yield Progress on Inspections

September 2002

By Paul Kerr

As Washington debated taking military action against Iraq, representatives from the United Nations and Baghdad exchanged views during July and August over the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq but were unable to resolve their differences.

Following up their previous meetings in March and May, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Hans Blix, executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), met with an Iraqi delegation in Vienna July 4 and 5. UNMOVIC is the organization charged with overseeing Iraq’s compliance with its disarmament obligations. The officials discussed remaining disarmament issues, as Iraq had requested, and logistical arrangements for inspections, at UNMOVIC’s request, but the meeting ended without agreement.

The crux of the dispute is Iraq’s wish to discuss weapons inspections in conjunction with what it terms a “comprehensive settlement,” which would address other issues, such as the no-fly zones enforced by the United States and the United Kingdom, and compensation payments related to the Persian Gulf War. The UN, however, insists that inspections begin before other issues can be discussed, as required by Security Council resolutions.

After the July meetings failed to reach a resolution, the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, sent a letter August 1 to Annan inviting Blix and UNMOVIC experts to Baghdad to review the results of weapons inspections conducted between 1991 and 1998 and to discuss how to resolve outstanding issues. “We cannot think of starting a new stage without solving the pending issues of the previous stage,” Sabri said in the letter.

In an August 6 letter, Annan welcomed Iraq’s “desire to continue our dialogue” but rejected its proposal because it did not allow for inspections to begin immediately. Resolution 1284, passed in 1999, mandates that inspectors start work in Iraq prior to drawing up a list of remaining disarmament tasks, in order to first determine what those tasks should be.

Iraq replied to Annan in an August 15 letter that reiterated its previous proposal and addressed the terms of the “comprehensive settlement” it envisions. Iraq wants an agreement that will link inspections to such issues as economic sanctions, a nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the Middle East, the no-fly zones, and the U.S. policy of regime change. The letter stated that these issues and Iraq’s compensation payments should be addressed before discussing inspections.

Iraq disputes the United Nations’ contention that Resolution 1284 clearly requires inspections to begin before other issues are discussed. According to Baghdad, Resolution 1382, passed in 2001, states that Resolution 1284 is vague and calls for a comprehensive settlement. The relevant portion of Resolution 1382 states that the Security Council “reaffirms its commitment to a comprehensive settlement on the basis of the relevant resolutions of the Security Council, including any clarification necessary for the implementation of resolution 1284.”

U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte characterized Annan’s rejection of Iraq’s August 15 invitation as consistent with the views of Security Council members and said that the council would not take up Iraq’s proposals. The United States held the presidency of the Security Council in August.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said August 3 that the requirements for Iraq to come into compliance with UN resolutions are clear and that “there is no need for further clarification or discussion of a comprehensive approach.”

Iraq also extended an invitation August 5 for members of the U.S. Congress to conduct a fact-finding mission in Iraq and inspect suspected weapons facilities, but no member of Congress accepted.

Debate in Washington

The exchange between Iraq and the United Nations occurred against a backdrop of vigorous debate over whether, when, and how the United States should use military force to counter a potential threat from Iraq, the need for U.S. allies’ support for military action, and the utility of weapons inspections.
The debate was propelled by Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearings about Iraq July 31 and August 1, as well as comments from Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger, and James Baker—all of whom held high-level positions in the administration of George H. W. Bush—expressing concern about possible plans the current administration has for attacking Iraq.

Several prominent administration officials have issued statements that are widely regarded as supporting pre-emptive use of military force to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Vice President Dick Cheney said in an August 26 speech regarding Iraq that “the risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action. If the United States could have pre-empted 9/11, we would have, no question. Should we be able to prevent another…attack, we will.”

The widespread discussion of invasion signifies a change in emphasis in the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. During its first year, the administration stressed “smart sanctions” and the importance of Iraqi compliance with weapons inspections. As recently as July 31, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer stated that the Bush administration is working with the United Nations, citing efforts to return inspectors to Iraq and earlier work to implement smart sanctions. (See ACT, June 2002.)

The administration maintains that its policy on Iraq is to effect “regime change” in Baghdad while supporting efforts to enforce UN Security Council resolutions. “We continue to leave all our options available regarding Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime remains a serious threat…. So we are going to continue working to secure Iraq’s full compliance with all UN Security Council resolutions,” State Department spokesman Philip Reeker stated August 8.

Some administration officials, including Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have expressed doubt that UNMOVIC would be effective in disarming Iraq, even if inspectors were allowed back into the country. Cheney said in his August 26 speech that the “return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam Hussein’s] compliance with UN resolutions…. There is a great danger that it would provide false comfort.”

Blix expressed concern that a U.S. policy committed to invasion could discourage Iraq from accepting inspectors. In an August 23 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Blix said, “If the Iraqis conclude that an invasion by someone is…inevitable, then they might conclude that it’s not very meaningful to have inspections.”