Seeking to overhaul the decade-old Iraqi sanctions regime, the United Kingdom, in coordination with the United States, submitted a draft proposal to the UN Security Council on May 21 that would substantially alter the existing regime, easing some sanctions while tightening enforcement of others. In what is widely believed to be a stalling tactic, Russia submitted a competing resolution that offers Iraq significant concessions without attempting to improve the troubled UN sanctions system substantially.
The draft resolutions come as a six-month extension of the UN oil-for-food program, which Washington wants to replace as part of revamping the sanctions regime, is set to expire June 4. The program allows Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of oil and deposit revenues into a UN-controlled escrow account, which Baghdad can use to purchase construction and humanitarian supplies under UN supervision. To date, the program has been extended nine times.
The British draft resolution incorporates many of the ideas floated by Secretary of State Colin Powell over the past few months. (See ACT, April 2001.) Most significantly, the resolution lifts restrictions on the sale or supply of civilian goods to Iraq. The draft also creates a comprehensive new list of military and dual-use items that require the United Nations’ permission for import. This list replaces the full military arms embargo on Iraq and a list of restricted dual-use items. Furthermore, the draft preserves the requirement that all oil sales revenue be placed in a UN-administered escrow account.
The resolution also seeks to tighten controls on Iraq’s illegal oil exports and surcharges, which generate an estimated $2-3 billion per year. The draft would allow only trading organizations meeting specific criteria set out by the UN secretary-general to sell or supply Iraqi oil. But, realizing that compliance by Iraq’s neighbors would be critical to enforcing a tighter regime, under the proposed resolution the secretary-general would designate authorized checkpoints, monitored by UN personnel, from which Iraq could export oil to border states. Proceeds from oil sales would be deposited in separate national escrow accounts, from which Iraq could draw to pay for commercial transactions with those states. If Iraq stopped exporting oil to border states as retribution for their cooperation with the UN, the draft would protect those states’ economies by compensating them with revenue already in the UN escrow account.
The proposal would also create “new authorized border crossings with Iraq” to restrict other illegal imports or exports. It is presently unclear whether UN or national officials would staff these checkpoints. Furthermore, the resolution would allow countries to resume commercial air flights to and from Iraq, but it would require all flights to land at designated inspection points staffed by national authorities and monitored by UN observers.
On May 22, James Cunningham, acting U.S. representative to the UN, told reporters that Washington wants the British draft resolution adopted before the oil-for-food program expiration date and that it “ought to be negotiable” by that time. In addition to removing controls on Iraq’s civilian trade and focusing on security and disarmament, Cunningham said the draft addresses “a bunch of other issues that have been under discussion in the council for some time where other members have made it clear they wanted to see movement. We have met those concerns.”
On state-run Iraqi television May 23, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz responded to the new British draft, calling it “very wicked and malicious.” He stressed that, even if the resolution is approved, neither Iraq nor its “sister states” would comply with it. And on May 7, Al-Thawrah, the newspaper of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath party, warned Iraq’s neighbors that “compliance with this plan by any state or government would cause grievous harm to its interests.”
Apparently attempting to delay any significant overhaul of the sanctions regime, Russia’s draft incorporates the basic elements of the oil-for-food program, such as retaining the six-month renewal process, but makes several modifications. For instance, it would lower the “deduction rate” taken by the United Nations from oil revenues deposited in the escrow account from 25 percent to 20 percent. The UN uses the 25 percent deduction rate in the current phase of the oil-for-food program to finance Persian Gulf War reparations.
Most significantly, the resolution permits Iraq “unrestricted use of civil aircraft, sea and railway transport for carrying passengers and commercial and humanitarian cargo,” subject to notification of the Iraq Sanctions Committee. Unlike the British draft, no inspections would be required, effectively opening the door to unlimited, virtually unregulated imports.
By retaining the oil-for-food program’s structure, failing to offer new controls, and proposing changes favorable to Iraq, the Russian draft resolution appears politically unacceptable to the United States and United Kingdom. According to a UN source, Washington and London have ruled out consideration of the Russian resolution as a basis for negotiation.
Absent in both resolutions is any mention of a resumption of weapons inspections. During an interview on the May 20 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney refused to link easing sanctions to weapons inspections and said that, although the administration continues “to demand inspection…exactly what’s going to come out of the consultations that are now under way, I wouldn’t want to predict.”
It appears unlikely that the UN Security Council will have time to consider fully and approve any major overhaul of the sanctions regime before the June 4 expiration of the oil-for-food program. Although there would be political resistance from many members, UN sources say that the most likely result will involve a short-term continuation of the oil-for-food program in its present form.