Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 22, January 1998
Iraq-UNSCOM Relations Collapse Again as Renewed Conflict Looms
Summary: the Position by the End of January
By the end of January, for the second time in under three months, the United States and a small number of allies seemed able, willing and about to respond militarily to a crisis in relations between Iraq and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) trying to investigate Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programmes. Russian diplomacy was widely credited with having defused the last crisis, in mid-November (see last issue), but within days UNSCOM was re-embroiled in controversy over rights of access to certain sites - particularly Presidential Palaces - regarded as out-of-bounds by the Iraqi government.
Notwithstanding the short-lived nature of its triumph, Russia returned with determination to the diplomatic fray, adamantly refusing to countenance military action, a stance in which it is strongly supported by China, sympathetically supported by France, and generally supported by most other States. The US, at times with what seemed like the sole vocal backing of the United Kingdom, for its part insisted that no compromise solution, on the fundamentals of the problem, was acceptable, and that for diplomacy to work it required a credibility only preparation to have recourse to military force could provide.
Tensions in the international response to the crisis also seemed to be exacerbated by statements by UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler of Australia, variously praised and condemned for dramatic assertions about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons stocks.
On 30 January, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov discuss the crisis in Madrid. The final remarks of the press conference afterwards provided a succinct illustration of the different approaches of the two States:
"Secretary Albright: 'Let me say what our position is. We have said all along that we prefer a diplomatic option...that our patience is running out, and that the diplomatic route is all but exhausted. ... Thank you.'
Foreign Minister Primakov [speaking in English]: 'We are a little bit more patient, you know.'"
While Russia talked to Iraq, the US sought to explain its position to other States. On 28 January, the State Department announced that Albright would visit France, the UK, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt before 3 February. The day before, US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson had set off for Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia, Portugal, Kenya, Gabon, the Gambia, Brazil and Costa Rica.
Speaking on 28 January, Albright insisted that such activity was not being undertaken to "seek support":
"It is our preference...to do everything multilaterally and act in concert with others... But I am not going anywhere to seek support. I am going to explain our position. And, where we prefer always to go multilaterally and have as much support as possible, we are prepared to go unilaterally."
Albright spoke secure in the knowledge that any military action would receive overwhelming support from the Republican Congress. On 26 January, Newt Gingrich (Republican - Georgia), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters: "We will not allow American citizens to be terrorised by chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. We are prepared to be supportive of any steps for stopping that threat."
Support of equal intensity was also forthcoming from Britain. The essence of the crisis, Cook told reporters after meeting Albright on 30 January, is "a straightforward matter," namely, "preventing a brutal dictator from producing weapons of mass production."
The Secretary of State's visit to Paris did seem to succeed in softening French opposition to military action, or at least to the threat of such a step. In the words of French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, speaking at a 29 January press conference with the Secretary of State: "We have both said that a diplomatic solution would be preferable. ... [But] any means to be able to convey the message are good and should be used. It is vital that the message is clear and readily understandable. The message is always the same - Iraq must comply with the resolutions. And even if we don't know what the result of this intense diplomatic effort will be, it is our duty to continue nonetheless."
China remained steadfast in its total opposition to military action. It also has expressed sympathy with some of Iraq's complaints. According to Qin Huason, China's Ambassador to the UN, speaking to reporters on 30 January: "China is against the use or threat of use of force... We are of the view that Iraq should implement comprehensively and in real earnest the relevant resolutions adopted by the Security Council. At the same time, the legitimate concerns of Iraq - over its sovereignty, dignity and security - should be duly respected."
On 30 January, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel expressed himself exasperated and appalled by continued Iraqi obstruction of UNSCOM, and made it clear that Germany was not absolutely opposed to military action. Speaking after a meeting with Richard Butler, Kinkel stated:
"Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to dance on the nose of the United Nations and the international community... It appears that Saddam Hussein has something to hide, otherwise he would behave differently. From the outset, the Iraqi leadership has tried to evade its obligations by tricks and threats. ... [T]he German government believes that everything must be done to solve this recurrent problem by political and diplomatic means... [W]e have had numerous telephone conversations and talks with European leaders and we also agreed that, if these means do not lead to any results, military action can, of course, not be excluded..."
Saddam Hussein himself has been expressing defiance and scorn of the US stance. On 29 January, he said that any attack would be responded to "in a manner that will be a subject for admiration", adding: "They don't have any national interest or any justification to come thousands of miles to attack us... [But] if the Devil pushed these enemies to commit an evil act and an aggression...we will be forced to fight them with all our capabilities, expertise, faith and perseverance... Their aggression is against God."
On 31 January, the US Defense Secretary sought to contain expectations of the possible scope and objective of any action against Iraq. William Cohen told reporters at the Pentagon: "I think we should not raise expectations unreasonably high. What we would hope to accomplish...is to curtail, as best we can, Saddam Hussein's capacity to regenerate his weapons-of-mass-destruction capability." Cohen continued: "I think it's clear that a military operation would not necessarily be a one-time operation or action... Should military action be necessary, it would not be meagre. It would be substantial in size and I think impact."
The Route to the Latest Brink
Iraq's two main complaints against the operation of UNSCOM are that it is seeking access to sites - most notably Presidential premises - unconnected to its various searches, and that the personnel of its inspection teams is disproportionately American and British.
On 12 January, Iraq announced it would not permit any inspections involving American Scott Ritter, one of 9 US members of a 16-strong UNSCOM team due to begin work the following day. Iraq repeated earlier accusations that Ritter was a US spy. Iraqi non-cooperation prevented any inspection on 13 January, promoting a unanimous condemnation from the UN Security Council on 14 January. The Council also requested UNSCOM Chair Butler to brief it fully on developments in the near future. Iraq seemed to be entirely unimpressed by the UN condemnation. In the words of its UN Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon (15 January): "I think that we have lost our sensitivity to United Nations' Security Council statements."
On 16 January, China for the first time offered to contribute experts to UNSCOM, while France and Russia offered to contribute more, citing the recommendation of UNSCOM's Board of Advisors in their report of 21 November (see last issue) that an effort should be made to "broaden the multi-national nature of inspection teams." The announcements did not produce a noticeable softening in the Iraqi position.
Butler visited Iraq from 19-21 January. Little progress was reported except with regard to establishing a mechanism allowing UNSCOM to assess progress made in eliminating stocks of VX nerve gas. On the negative side, Iraq said it had no more information to disclose on its WMD programmes, proposed a moratorium on all inspections, and set a deadline of 20 May for the completion of UNSCOM's work.
In the Security Council, meanwhile, a sharp disagreement had emerged over whether UNSCOM's investigation of Iraq's nuclear-weapons programme could now safely be concluded. After considering a report submitted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 15 January, and summarised in the Council on 22 January by IAEA official Garry Dillon, China and Russia argued that no further nuclear inspections were warranted, while the US and UK disagreed. China's Ambassador Qin Huason presented the view of his government that "the remaining issues in the nuclear field have been basically closed... [I]t is time to close the nuclear file," while Russia's Ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, said the IAEA report "confirmed our conviction that the file is closed for all practical purposes." However, according to Bill Richardson: "We've heard a very disturbing preliminary report from the IAEA and in our judgement there is no justification for closing the nuclear file that the Iraqis want and that some in the Security Council suggested."
Butler briefed the Council on 23 January. His report concentrated on the biological, chemical and missiles 'files'. There was no dispute that these files needed to remain open. Butler's report, referring to "grave instances of attempts to mislead the Commission and the Council," concluded that "Iraq is determined to withhold any further or new information...and seek to prevent us from finding it ourselves if that would involve inspections of a certain character." UK Ambassador John Weston was quoted as concluding that, as things stood, UNSCOM's mission "has no chance of being completed," and that Iraq's present stance "amounts to a definitive rejection of the UN Security Council resolutions on which this whole operation is based." For the US, Bill Richardson was equally outraged: "Iraq's response can be described in one word: defiance - defiance of all Security Council resolutions, defiance of the UN inspection team, and defiance of the international community. That we find unacceptable."
In the wake of Butler's report, the US and UK emphasised their insistence that no compromise-solution be sought, while Russia intensified its efforts to avoid military conflict. On 27 January, President Yeltsin sent a special envoy to Baghdad to again try and persuade Iraq to allow UNSCOM to pursue its mandate. Upon arrival, Viktor Posuvaluk told the Iraqi News Agency that "President Yeltsin and the Russian government firmly believe that the use of force against Iraq is not constructive under any circumstances."
The same day, Butler was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Iraq was still in possession of enough biological weapons to "blow away Tel Aviv." Butler also listed ways in which the Security Council could toughen its response: they "include," he said, "extending the no-fly zone currently in force over northern Iraq and sealing off the Iraqi port of Basra to end a contraband trade in oil." The remarks greatly angered not only Iraq but Russia, China, France and others. On 28 January, French Foreign Minister Vedrine said "it is not certain" that Iraq retained large biological weapon stocks, and that such a claim was therefore "inappropriate," and in any event should not have been made by Mr. Butler. On 30 January, Ambassador Qin Huason also said it was "inappropriate" for Butler to make "any public comments on information that has not been first briefed to the Council": Ambassador Lavrov said that the remarks were "both unethical and very irresponsible."
Butler later said that the quote had continued "or wherever," and that he had not meant to imply he knew of specific targeting. Speaking in Bonn on 30 January, Butler said he meant only that Iraq possessed "the ability to strike any city within range of its missiles." The remark naturally caused great unease in Israel, as well as defiance and threats against Iraq from Prime Minister Netanyahu: "Israel has all the means necessary to make such an attack very, very dangerous for Iraq - much more dangerous for Iraq than it is for Israel."
On 30 January, Russia issued its fiercest criticism of Butler. According to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Valery Nesterushkin: "The so-called public diplomacy of Richard Butler and his contemplation of possible new measures which could be taken by the Security Council are beyond the mandate of the UN Special Commission. ... Such statements arose serious concern... Those recommendations are especially inappropriate now because they only worsen the already heated situation..." Nesterushkin added that he knew objections to Butler's New York Times interview had also been raised by the French Foreign Ministry and been "reflected in the statements of the UN Secretary-General."
Also on 30 January, Iraq permitted a number of diplomats, but no members of UNSCOM, to visit, accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Presidential Palace 65 miles north of Baghdad.
On 31 January, a team of 23 experts, drawn from both UNSCOM and outside, arrived in Iraq to begin discussions related to the dismantlement of warheads which could be used to deliver chemical or biological materials. The group was led by the UNSCOM missiles expert Nikita Smidovich of Russia. A further team, to be led by UNSCOM inspector Horst Reeps of Germany but also including non-UNSCOM personnel, was scheduled to arrive on 2 February to discuss Iraqi stocks of the VX nerve agent.
A subplot of the main drama has been the 'oil-for-food' resolution 986, permitting the sale of Iraqi oil to raise funds to meet the humanitarian crisis caused by UN sanctions. On 4 December 1997, the Security Council voted to extend the operation of the resolution for a further six months and asked the Secretary-General to determine whether the limit on the amount of oil to be sold - around $2 billion per six months - should be increased (see last issue). On 22 January, UN officials submitted a report with recommendations in this regard to Secretary-General Annan. On 2 February, Annan announced a new limit of $5.2 billion. According to the Secretary-General:
"I hope that President Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi leadership will share the concern I am displaying today for the Iraqi population and have the wisdom to take the right decisions... The Iraqi leadership must understand that if sanctions were to be ended, and if it wants sanctions to be ended and to see light at the end of the tunnel, Iraq must comply fully [with all resolutions]... It is my sincere hope that diplomatic efforts to this end will succeed failure risks another round of devastating military action, which may have unpredictable consequences..."
Reports: US watching what Iraq does on Ritter arms inspection team, United States Information Service, 12 January UN Secretary General Annan urges Iraq not to ban American, United States Information Service, 12 January UNSCOM Chairman defends weapons inspector's impartiality, United States Information Service, 13 January Iraq blocks US weapons inspectors, Associated Press, 13 January Security Council deplores Iraq's decision to halt work of UNSCOM inspection team, United Nations Press Release SC/6468, 14 January UN says Iraqi ban unacceptable, Associated Press, 14 January Iraq shrugs off UN protest, Associated Press, 15 January Nuclear inspections in Iraq, IAEA Press Release PR 98/2, 15 January Russia, France, China offer inspectors to UN, Reuters, 16 January Iraq blasts US for rejecting plane offer, Reuters, 19 January Butler talks to Iraqis for 2nd day, Associated Press, 20 January UN, Iraq agree to talks on warheads, gas, Reuters, 20 January US rejects Iraqi inspections freeze proposal, Reuters, 21 January UN works to improve Iraq oil-for-food deal, Reuters, 22 January Russia, China urge inspection halt, Associated Press, 22 January Ambassador Richardson finds reports on Iraq 'discouraging', United States Information Service, 22 January UN divided on how to respond to Iraq, Reuters, 23 January UNSCOM head Butler calls Iraqi talks 'disturbing,' United States Information Service, 23 January Brit - UN could lose credibility, Associated Press, 23 January Gingrich - Republicans support Clinton on Iraq, Reuters, 26 January Russia envoy arrives in Baghdad, Associated Press, 27 January Text - Sec State to Europe to discuss Iraq situation, United States Information Service, 28 January US is prepared to act unilaterally on Iraq, Albright says, 28 January France dismisses Butler chemical charge, United Press International, 28 January Israel issues tough warning on Iraq, Reuters, 28 January France shifts on possible military strike, United Press International, 29 January Russian envoy heads for Iraq talks in Madrid, Reuters, 29 January Saddam says he does not want war, Associated Press, 29 January Russia slams UN's Butler over Iraq remarks, Reuters, 30 January Transcript - Sec State says US, France share views on Iraq, United States Information Service, 30 January Diplomats pressing Iraq to cooperate with the United Nations, United States Information Service, 30 January Transcript - Albright, Primakov press briefing, United States Information Service, 30 January China opposes force in Iraq, Associated Press, 30 January Objections, correction to Butler remarks, United Press International, 30 January Iraq allows diplomats into Palace, Associated Press, 30 January Cohen dampens strike capabilities, Associated Press, 31 January UN arms experts arrive in Iraq for talks, Reuters, 31 January US - time approaching for Iraq decision, Reuters, 31 January UN proposes doubling aid to Iraqi people, United States Information Service, 2 February.
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