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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 21, December 1997

Iraq-UNSCOM: Back from the Brink

On 20 November, a Russian-led diplomatic initiative persuaded Iraq to permit the readmission of US weapons experts as part of UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors teams investigating Iraqi facilities. Iraq had expelled the US members of the teams on 13 November (see last issue) on the grounds of espionage. UNSCOM Chair Sir Richard Butler had responded immediately by withdrawing all inspectors. In the week between the expulsion and the diplomatic breakthrough, it had become clear both that the US and UK were prepared to take military action against Iraq, and that they would be profoundly isolated if they did so.

Soon after the breakthrough, familiar problems returned. UNSCOM began demanding access to Presidential Palaces, a demand initially completely rejected by Iraq. And wrangling continued over the details and logistics of the UN resolution permitting the sale of Iraqi oil to raise funds for humanitarian supplies.

The Diplomatic Breakthrough

The basis of the UN Security Council's position which was to produce the breakthrough was hammered out by the Foreign Ministers of China, France, Russia, the UK and US, meeting in Geneva late into the night of 19 November. A joint statement emerged in the early hours of 20 November, stressing the united resolve of all concerned:

"The participants of the meeting underscored the importance of the efforts in solidarity of the Five Permanent members of the UN Security Council aimed at the unconditional and complete fulfilment by Iraq of all of the relevant resolutions at the UN Security Council.

They appreciated the diplomatic initiative undertaken by Russia, in contact with all the other members of the P-5, which the participants in the meeting hope will lead to the unconditional decision by the leadership of Iraq to accept the return of the personnel of the Special Commission..."

Although the statement gave no inkling of a change in UN-Iraq relations henceforth, it was clear from other comments and hints that the broad political position seemed to be that Iraq must cease placing any conditions on UNSCOM activities, while Council members - implicitly, China, France and Russia - would seek to ensure that UNSCOM completed its work as soon as practicable, thus opening the way to a comprehensive lifting of sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Primakov briefed Iraqi officials on the Council's position the following day, securing their speedy approval. "The crisis is over," as Iraq's Ambassador to the UN, Nizar Hamdoon, announced simply to reporters.

A few days previously, President Yeltsin had written to Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, presumably commending the merits of this approach. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on 20 November: "Undoubtedly, the main thing here was that President Boris Yeltsin sent a personal message...expressing our view of the [desirable] outcome." Yeltsin's spokesperson, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, spoke candidly (20 November) about this tacit understanding and the consequences that would follow from it:

"Russia will undertake certain steps in the Security Council to improve the grave condition of ordinary Iraqi people... The work of the [Special] Commission should have some end. Iraq should see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Interestingly, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine also referred to the 'tunnel' of sanctions and isolation during a 20 November interview:

"As we ourselves see it, we must be able to say clearly under what conditions, and when, the Iraqis will finally be able to emerge from the tunnel and we must not, in our view, as the United States has been doing in recent years, give the impression that even if the Iraqis fulfilled all their obligations, even if they had dismantled all the programmes for developing weapons of mass destruction, they would nevertheless emerge from the tunnel or get the embargo lifted."

The US and UK were at pains to stress that no deal had been done, and that Iraq had been forced to back down. Bill Richardson, US Ambassador to the UN, insisted on 20 November: "It is now up to Iraq to follow [up] with real performance on the ground. There can be no conditions, no deals, no winks...no carrots." British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook stated the same day: "The message Baghdad should receive from this is that there is unity among the Permanent Five, where Baghdad had anticipated a split among the Permanent Five. I would hope this message comes through loud and clear." In a later interview with the BBC, Cook stated uncategorically that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "has not won any compromise. There are no concessions. There is no deal. There is no commitment on the part of the United Nations Permanent Five to lift those sanctions."


There was a somewhat messy political aftermath to the breakthrough in the UN. UNSCOM inspectors, including US experts, returned immediately - arriving in Iraq on 21 November - and resumed their work the next day. Initially, no problems were reported, though concerns were voiced by UNSCOM members about the removal of surveillance equipment during the Commission's absence (see below).

Back in the Security Council, differences of opinion and emphasis on the best way forward were soon discernible. On 22 November, after meeting in emergency session the day before, UNSCOM's Advisory Board of Commissioners submitted a 33-point report on the status of UNSCOM's work. Although they normally meet only twice a year, the 20 Commissioners can recommend important changes in UNSCOM's procedures and organization. According to reports, Russia made strong efforts to persuade the Commission to draw up a number of recommended changes to the procedures for inspecting sensitive sites. Russia also apparently sought changes likely to speed up and conclude the inspection programme.

However, the bulk of Russia's proposals were not accepted by the Commissioners. Russia thus refused to endorse the Commissioners' report when it came before the Security Council on 24 November, urging instead that the Council merely register the facts contained in it - a stance reacted to with some exasperation by UK Ambassador Sir John Weston, who said he found it "bizarre that anyone should have difficulty taking note with approval of the report and the recommendations contained therein." Speaking in Buenos Aires on 25 November, Primakov noted, clearly referring to the tussle in the Council: "While favouring strict fulfillment by Baghdad of Security Council resolutions, at the same time we believe it would be counterproductive to corner Baghdad."

Russia then submitted a draft statement requiring UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler to draw up his own proposals for enhancing "the efficiency and improve the working methods" of his inspection teams. According to Russia's UN Ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, speaking on 24 November, "we certainly hope that he [Butler] would find acceptable solutions to strengthen those inspections and avoid incidents which happened in the past."

The discord continued until 3 December, when a Security Council Presidential statement finally announced endorsement of "the conclusions and recommendations of the report of the emergency session of the Special Commission". Ambassador Richardson expressed relief, saying the statement "showed US-Russian cooperation since it was a joint text and it was approved unanimously."

New Frustrations for UNSCOM

Almost immediately on its return, UNSCOM, most vocally backed by Britain and America, began requesting access to some of the many Presidential Palaces in Iraq. Reports of the number of Palaces varied, but according to President Clinton on 24 November there were 78: "Some of them are huge compounds. Some of them actually encompass more land than Washington, D.C."

On 26 November, Iraq apparently softened its position, inviting experts and diplomats to visit certain Palace sites for, in the words of Iraq's Revolution Command Council, "a period of one week or more, or for a month, so that they can find out the truth." The US seemed impressed, with State Department spokesperson James Foley observing (26 November): "This seems to be a significant breach in the Iraqi line that we've seen to date."

However, hopes of a limited breakthrough were almost immediately dashed, with Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, stating on 27 November that the invitees did not include UNSCOM's own inspectors: "Those sovereign sites [the palaces] are from the very beginning out of Iraq's work [with UNSCOM]..." On 10 December, Iraq's Oil Minister, Lt. Gen. Amer Mohammed Rashid, repeated this position: "Presidential sites are totally forbidden for UNSCOM inspectors because they are a symbol of sovereignty... On this we shall not compromise."

Notwithstanding the Palaces controversy, UNSCOM spokesperson Nils Carlstrom said on 3 December that, since its return, the Commission had "had access to all sites" it had requested to inspect. The same day, Major General Hussam Mohammed Amin, Director of Iraq's National Monitoring Commission, stated that all UNSCOM equipment had been returned and restored to operation. He confirmed that two camera cables were cut on 14 November, but not on Government orders. Amin added that no equipment "was used whatsoever from 30 October to 22 November."

The next day, it was revealed that Tariq Aziz had written to Richard Butler earlier in the week, seeking to place a number of conditions on UNSCOM activity. The conditions reportedly included replacing US U2 planes as the aircraft conducting surveillance flights on UNSCOM's behalf, and the announcement by UNSCOM of a deadline for completing its inspections. Aziz reportedly added that Iraq had the right to refuse certain inspection requests.

Oil-for-Food Resolution

Following the 20 November reprieve, there were concerted efforts to achieve a more fundamental breakthrough in UN-Iraq relations by seriously improving the plight of Iraqi civilians. On 1 December, reporting to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted: "I regret to report [that] the population of Iraq continues to face a serious nutritional and health situation and there is an urgent need to contain the risk of a further deterioration... Given the scale of urgent humanitarian requirements...the Security Council may wish to re-examine the adequacy of the revenues...and to consider the possibility of increasing those revenues..."

Annan was referring to revenues accrued from the sale of oil, permitted under the terms of resolution 986. The revenue limit Annan was questioning is a cap on proceeds of just over $2 billion every six months, two thirds of which must be dedicated to procuring humanitarian supplies. Annan was reporting a week before the expiration of the second six-month period of operation (8 June-8 December). Writing the day before in The Washington Post, Ambassador Richardson implied no opposition in principle to permitting increased income: "The United States remains committed to improving the oil-for-food program. Our compassion for the innocent Iraqi citizens suffering under Saddam Hussein's irresponsible leadership has never wavered." Earlier (26 November), UK Ambassador Weston had stated that the "UK is quite ready to push the envelope on 986."

Until late November, Iraq's position was that it would only accept a complete lifting of sanctions. However, on 29 November a Foreign Ministry statement declared that Iraq "does not oppose in principle the renewal of the oil-for-food agreement."

On 4 December, the Security Council agreed to a further six-month operation of the oil-for-food programme. However, under a compromise position proposed by Britain, no revenue limit was announced, pending a report in January by the Secretary-General. Iraq was requested to submit a new distribution plan to Annan no later than 5 January. After the decision, France's Ambassador Alain Dejammet made his Government's feelings plain: "Given the scope of the humanitarian disaster in Iraq...we should have gone further... It is intolerable that the Iraqi people continue to suffer in perpetuity."

Reports: Iraq ends stalemate with UN, Associated Press, 20 November; UNSCOM heads back to Iraq, United Press International, 20 November; Russian diplomacy scores a victory, Associated Press, 20 November; Iraq says UN arms monitors can return, Reuters, 20 November; US resolute on Iraqi compliance following Geneva meeting, United States Information Service, 20 November; Text - Joint statement by Perm Five, United States Information Service, 20 November; Interview given by M. Hubert Vedrine, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to 'Europe 1', French Foreign Ministry Bulletin d'Information en Langue Anglaise, 21 November; Arms panel ends marathon session on Iraq, Reuters, 21 November; UN Panel rejects Iraq proposals, Associated Press, 22 November; US says UN needs access to Saddam's Palaces, Reuters, 23 November; US insists Palaces be inspected, Associated Press, 24 November; Russia pushes to speed UN inspections, Reuters, 24 November; UNSCOM report - no consensus from Council, United Press International, 24 November; Russia, France battle for Iraq, Associated Press, 25 November; Russia wants 'light at end of tunnel' for Iraq, Reuters, 25 November; US says Iraqi offer could be welcome, Reuters, 26 November; Britain backs improvements in Iraq oil-for-food, Reuters, 26 November; Saddam - UN can visit Palaces, Associated Press, 27 November; Iraqi - no inspectors at Palaces, Associated Press, 27 November; Iraq changes stand on UN program, Associated Press, 29 November; US would mull more Iraq oil sales, Reuters, 1 December; Presidential Statement, United Nations Press Release SC/6450, 3 December; Iraq - weapons monitors are in place, Associated Press, 3 December; United Nations Security Council backs UNSCOM report on Iraq, United States Information Service, 3 December; Baghdad demands to set search terms, Associated Press, 4 December; Resolution 1143 (1997) adopted unanimously, United Nations Press Release SC/5452, 4 December; UN extends Iraq oil-for-food plan, Associated Press, 5 December; Iraq bars inspectors from Palaces, Associated Press, 10 December; UN demands access to all Iraqi sites, Reuters, 10 December.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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