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UN Security Council Overhauls Iraqi Sanctions Regime
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June 2002

By Alex Wagner

More than a year after it set out to revitalize the Iraqi sanctions regime, the United States won unanimous approval from the UN Security Council for a resolution that effectively lifts the international embargo on civilian trade with Iraq. The council’s 15-0 vote on May 14 came as the United Nations and Baghdad appear to be making progress on talks that would result in the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq.

The adoption of what Secretary of State Colin Powell has touted as “smart sanctions” removes UN export controls on purely civilian goods, allowing Iraq to import any nonmilitary item through a streamlined UN review process. Under the old regime, Iraq could import food items and certain infrastructure, health, and agricultural materials but was effectively prevented from importing most other civilian cargo.

Contracts with military applications will still be barred, and items delineated on a “Goods Review List” that have both civilian and military uses will require additional scrutiny before Iraq can import them. Two inspection bodies, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are charged with examining all contracts that incorporate items on the Goods Review List.

Through the resolution, the Security Council also extended for another six months the oil-for-food program, under which Baghdad’s oil-sale revenues are placed into a UN-controlled escrow account that funds all of Iraq’s purchases.

The Bush administration began planning last year to revise the sanctions on Iraq, believing that the now-11-year-old regime was not effective and wanting to respond to international criticism that sanctions—not the policies of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein—were responsible for the humanitarian problems of the Iraqi people.

In May 2001, the United States and United Kingdom issued a draft proposal to reinvigorate the regime. In addition to lifting the civilian embargo and implementing a Goods Review List, the administration had wanted to tighten restrictions on Iraqi oil customers and designate permitted border crossings into Iraq to prevent Baghdad from illegally exporting oil to pay for imported, proscribed weapons and technology.

However, Washington and London apparently dropped their efforts to stem smuggling because of stiff opposition from Iraq’s neighbors, who profit from the illicit trade. As a result, the Security Council only approved a draft Goods Review List in late November 2001. Since then, U.S. and Russian diplomats have negotiated minor revisions to the list.

Because the new resolution eliminates nearly all the red tape that had held up Iraq’s import of some civilian goods, Washington views the new resolution as a public relations coup. During a May 14 interview with Washington File, Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John Wolf said, “These changes will further highlight that the situation of the Iraqi people is due to the [Iraqi] regime’s subversion of the UN system intended to provide for their well being. With this simple process for civilian goods in place, there can be no excuse for evasion of the focused controls aimed at preventing the Iraqi regime’s rearmament.”

Speaking to reporters May 14, Powell called the vote “a major achievement.” That same day, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte noted that unanimous approval of the resolution was a “significant accomplishment, both politically and technically.”

Unsurprisingly, Iraq was critical of the Security Council’s action because it did not remove all sanctions, but Baghdad agreed on May 16 to accept the new arrangement. In a May 16 address carried over state-run television, Hussein blasted the move, saying it sought to forestall “Iraq’s awakening and effort to develop its scientific and technical resources.”

Although the United States remains committed to eventually disposing of the Hussein regime to neutralize the perceived Iraqi threat, the Bush administration continues to support an ongoing Iraq-UN dialogue to discuss the readmission of UN weapons inspectors into Iraq.

A second round of talks between the UN and Iraq concluded without agreement on May 3, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed hope that an upcoming third round would produce a deal.

Under the terms of the 1991 Persian Gulf War ceasefire, Iraq agreed to allow unfettered, comprehensive weapons inspections. Iraq’s subsequent resistance to inspections led to the removal of inspectors just prior to a U.S.-led bombing campaign in December 1998. For some time, senior Bush administration officials have expressed concern that Iraq has been actively rearming since inspectors left the country.

Speaking to the press May 3, Annan described the three days of talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri as “useful and frank,” emphasizing, “We did move forward.” Sabri echoed Annan’s characterization, saying the talks were “useful, frank, and focused.”

Annan also said that for the first time since inspectors left Iraq, the two sides held “thorough” disarmament discussions that focused on the technicalities of resuming inspections. UNMOVIC chairman Hans Blix participated in the first round of talks in March and was joined by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei for the most recent session. (See ACT, April 2002.) At a May 3 press briefing, ElBaradei and Blix both estimated inspections would last about one year with full Iraqi cooperation.

A UN official said that the talks yielded “no breakthroughs” but noted that the focus on disarmament was “a positive sign.” The Iraqi delegation had wanted to raise additional topics such as the no-fly zones over Iraq and the lifting of sanctions, but Annan refused to discuss these subjects, the official said.

Iraq’s delegation will now report back to Baghdad and confer with Iraq’s leadership, while the UN awaits an answer as to whether Iraq will permit a return of inspectors. The UN and Iraq are scheduled to resume discussions in early July. The UN official said that the two sides might hold the next meeting in Vienna and that Annan is unlikely to agree to any additional rounds of talks.