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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 23, February 1998

Conflict Narrowly Averted in Iraq


Baghdad on 23 February, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, signed a memorandum-of-understanding (MOU) designed to enable the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to complete its programme of weapons inspections without let or hindrance, paving the way in turn for the lifting of sanctions imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The MOU, subsequently unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council in resolution 1154 of 2 March (see next issue), almost certainly averted military strikes against Iraq led by the United States with the firm support of Great Britain and some other States. See Documents and Sources for the full text of the MOU.

The ostensible core of the crisis was Iraq's reluctance, evidenced by actual obstruction and delay, to permit UNSCOM access to all sites, particularly a number of Presidential sites, it suspects may be the hiding-place of materials, equipment or documents relating to Iraqi chemical and biological warfare (CBW) capabilities. The 23 February MOU names eight Presidential sites UNSCOM is henceforth to have completely open access to.

Iraq's main complaint has long been that UNSCOM is dominated by US and UK officials intent on both espionage, slander and the continuation of sanctions. Although the MOU details no changes to UNSCOM power or personnel, there is a symbolic change of procedure whereby UNSCOM inspectors will be accompanied on certain inspections by diplomatic observers. With regard to the possible completion of UNSCOM inspections and the lifting of sanctions, the MOU makes no mention of deadlines or specific target-dates. It does, however, state:

"The lifting of sanctions is obviously of paramount importance to the people and government of Iraq, and the Secretary General undertook to bring this matter to the full attention of the members of the Security Council."

The Security Council appeared badly divided during February, with three of its permanent members, China, France and Russia, implacably opposed to military action by the two other permanent members, the UK and US. Such a split may be considered likely to reappear even in the advent of a clear abrogation of the terms of the MOU by Iraq.

Annan's Successful Mission and Its Aftermath

Annan announced his mission to Baghdad after meeting with the Security Council on 18 February: "I am happy that on this issue and at this critical stage the unanimity of the Council has been reestablished and that they are behind what I am going to Baghdad to do." The previous week had seen much debate within the Council over the terms and scope of the Secretary-General's mission. Immediately the visit was announced, US Ambassador Bill Richardson made plain his government's determination to keep the military option open even in the event of a diplomatic breakthrough: "The United States reserves the right to oppose any arrangement that does not protect Security Council resolutions and what we perceive as America's national interest..."

The Secretary-General flew to Baghdad, via Paris, on 19 February. On 22 February, after meeting with President Hussein, it became apparent that Annan had already achieved much, particularly in persuading Iraq to drop two conditions wholly unacceptable to the US and others: that UNSCOM's access be limited to certain sites; and that a time-limit (60 days being the most commonly quoted period in reports) be placed on the inspection programme. Speaking after the signing ceremony, Annan averred: "We have a serious, credible agreement. We have negotiated this agreement in good faith. I am hopeful, perhaps even confident, they [the Iraqi side] will carry out their part of the agreement..."

Although Annan stated "I did not come here with ultimatums," he also noted that the MOU was an example of what could be achieved when diplomacy was "backed by force" - a point he was to repeat in subsequent days. Speaking alongside him, Tariq Aziz politely disagreed, saying the MOU was made possible by "the goodwill" Annan brought with him, and "not the American or the British build-up in the Gulf, and not the policy of sabre-rattling..."

Speaking on Iraqi television on 25 February, Aziz noted: "I believe that we have achieved excellent political gains for the present and the future, and practical gains related to the lifting of sanctions." On 26 February, Annan appointed Jayantha Dhanapala, the newly-appointed Under Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs (see last issue), as the head of the diplomatic team of observers to accompany UNSCOM inspectors.

Reaction to the Breakthrough

Initial US reaction was non-committal and downbeat. According to White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry (22 February): "It's a very serious matter at a serious time, and we want to get some questions answered." Initial reaction from the UK was also wary, but perhaps slightly warmer. According to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on 23 February: Britain has always wanted a diplomatic solution to the present confrontation... If we have got an acceptable deal it will be because of the resolve and the unity that the international community has shown."

Later on 23 February, President Clinton gave the key response: acceptance of the deal, if combined with a lack of optimism about its chances of success: "If fully implemented - and that is the big if - this commitment will allow UNSCOM to fulfill its mission... What really matters is Iraq's compliance, not its stated commitments." Answering questions, Clinton made clear that America would remain able and willing to take military steps should the accord falter:

"I believe if it [Iraq] does not keep its word this time, everyone would understand that then the United States, and hopefully all of our allies, would have the unilateral right to respond at a time, place and manner of our own choosing."

France immediately expressed its extreme pleasure, with a Foreign Ministry statement stressing (23 February) that France had "constantly defended the idea of a diplomatic solution." Similar expressions of satisfaction were quickly forthcoming from Beijing and Moscow.

By the end of February, the US was sounding much happier about the detail of the MOU. According to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 27 February: "This step back by Iraq is a step forward for our policy of containing the threat that is posed by Saddam Hussein... Iraq has made a commitment, and in as public a way as possible, to abide by UN resolutions and provide full access for UN inspectors." Referring in part to fierce Congressional disappointment at the 23 February agreement, Albright continued:

"I know there are some who want to reject this agreement and start bombing tomorrow. But I don't think the majority of the American people want that. And I'm certain the world would neither understand nor accept it..."

However, Albright also sought to make clear that if Iraq "reneges on this deal, there will be no question about the fact that force is the only way to go."

Finally, Albright made clear her pleasure at the undiminished status and importance of the Executive Chair of UNSCOM, Richard Butler of Australia, much criticised in recent weeks (see last issue), not only by Iraq but by China, Russia and others for the perceived aggressive and tactless style of his leadership:

"I was very pleased yesterday when Ambassador Richard Butler...made very clear that he will continue to be in charge of the process, that this will be done by professional inspectors, that the reports from this group will be given by him and that he will have what we are calling operational control..."

The Congressional hostility to the deal, mentioned above, was summed up in remarks by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Republican - Missouri) on 25 February. Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Lott stated angrily: "It is always possible to get a deal if you give enough away... The deal negotiated by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan...does not adequately address the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. ... The Secretary-General is calling the shots. The United States is not. ... We must be clear: we cannot afford peace at any price. ... It is not too late to reject the deal..."

The MOU was welcomed on 26 February by House of Representatives Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Democrat - Montana): "I am pleased with the accord... It gets everything we wanted..."

Diplomatic and UNSCOM Activity Before The Breakthrough

In the weeks preceding Annan's mission, France, Russia and the Arab League all dispatched top-level negotiators to Baghdad in an attempt to find common ground between Iraqi and UN positions.

On 8 February, Esmat Abdel-Medguid, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, told reporters that the League's proposals "will satisfy the UN demands...while preserving Iraq's dignity and sovereignty." Few details were forthcoming. It was clear, however, that the League was working closely with French and Russian officials.

By mid-February no decisive progress had been achieved, and US and UK support for the initiatives was conspicuously absent. In particular, Iraq seemed adamant that a return to UNSCOM-led inspections, at least without a time-frame, was unacceptable. As Tariq Aziz stated on 11 February:

"UNSCOM is the adversary. It should not be the judge. The judge should be the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the experts and diplomats who represent the Security Council." On 12 February, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair described Iraq's position as "absolutely hopeless" and "just not good enough".

With the exception of inspecting the Presidential sites, UNSCOM continued its work without serious incident throughout the crisis. Some progress was even made with regard to the Presidential sites prior to Annan's visit, with three UN (non-UNSCOM) experts being sent to Baghdad in mid-February to draw up detailed maps of a number of facilities.

A Summary of States' Positions

Support for Possible Military Action

Apart from the US and UK, States which expressed clear support for military action included: Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Germany, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Poland and Spain. Argentina, Australia, Canada and New Zealand also pledged military support for any operation.


On 13 February, the US State Department issued the following statement lauding Argentina's declaration of full and practical support:

"[Argentina] has stated that in the case that diplomatic efforts are exhausted, it is prepared to deploy military medical personnel and equipment.

This decision to make a military contribution, should it be necessary, is reflective of the courage and leadership of the Argentine government, which, in addition to participating in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, has provided troops for peacekeeping missions around the world in recent years."


On 9 February, addressing Parliament, Prime Minister Jean Chretien stated: "If we do not act, if we do not stand up to Saddam, that will encourage him to commit other atrocities... [T]he choice is clear. It is a choice dictated by the responsibilities of international citizenship, by the demands of international security and an understanding of the history of the world in this century."


In a 17 February Fact Sheet on States' positions, the US State Department quoted Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel as arguing:

"[W]e Germans in particular have good reason to work toward preventing a dictator from causing something terrible yet again. There was one dictator who was stopped too late. This one has to be stopped in good time... The international community cannot simply accept always being made a fool of. That is why the military option must remain available. He who wants a peaceful solution in particular cannot waver in this regard." Rudolph Scharping, the Chair of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Bundestag, was also quoted:

"...a military operation cannot and should not be ruled out in this case. The United States and Great Britain can absolutely count on German solidarity."

New Zealand

On 16 February, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley announced that New Zealand would be sending two surveillance aircraft and 20 special forces commandoes to the Gulf. According to Shipley:

"In the final analysis, when diplomacy fails, New Zealand must be prepared to act in concert with others to uphold, and if necessary enforce, international peace and security. ... By committing our support to the coalition, we hope that will be a small but significant gesture..." Norway

The 17 February State Department Fact Sheet quoted Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek as stating:

"If attempts at a peaceful solution are not successful, and military action should be taken against Iraq, the government considers that, taking everything into account, such action can be justified within the framework of the Security Council's resolutions."


Also in the 17 February Fact Sheet, Spain's President Aznar was quoted as follows:

"This is the Spanish position. This crisis will be solved if Iraq's government clearly complies...and does the right thing. If not, the duty of the Spanish government is to let it be known that other means might be used - a possibility we do not look forward to. But if these other means are finally used, Spain...will obviously...side with its partners and allies."

Opposition to Possible Military Action


On 5 February, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, speaking on State television, stated: "China is extremely and definitely opposed to the use of military force because its use will result in a tremendous amount of human casualties and create more turmoil in the region and even could cause new conflicts."


In a CNN television interview on 22 February, President Hosni Mubarak argued that "bombing would be risking the stability not only of the region but of the Moslem world." Mubarak added: "I am afraid for the interests of the United States in the whole area."

Mubarak went on to make the point perhaps raised more than any other during debate of the crisis in the region:

"For sure there is a double standard... When you see that Iraq isn't complying with UN Security Council resolution, they [the public] say 'look, Israel is doing the same, they don't comply with any resolution'. I tried to find an answer but I couldn't..."


Although Jordan was firmly opposed to military action, King Hussein was quoted on 2 February as stating that it was Iraq's "stubbornness in not responding to the demands of the Security Council" which might, "God forbid, push towards an explosion."


The crisis saw almost daily comments from Russian leaders and officials making clear Russia's complete opposition to seeking any military solution to the crisis. Most dramatically, twice in early February President Yeltsin warned that US-led military action could lead to "world war." On 4 February, Yeltsin stated: "Clinton's actions could lead to a world war. He is acting too loudly." The comment led to speculation that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons against the US if the US used such weapons against Iraq. This speculation was quickly and flatly denied by Russian officials, including UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov, who observed (4 February) that Yeltsin "was reacting to the reports in the media...that officials here [in the US] do not exclude the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq." On 5 February, Yeltsin commented: "The most important thing is that we have stuck firmly to our position of opposing the military option. It is not possible, it would mean world war."

Opposition in the Russian Parliament was also resolute and unequivocal. On 3 February, the Duma passed a resolution urging President Yeltsin to resume trading with Iraq in the event of the use of force. On 4 February, another resolution condemned military action and the perceived threat of the use of nuclear weapons by the United States if its troops were attacked with chemical or biological weapons. A member of the Duma's Defence Committee, Vladimir Volkov, told reporters on 4 February that US forces in the Gulf were ready to launch a nuclear strike. He elaborated: "Such weapons include warheads and bombs with a yield of from one to 100 kilotons..." Although US officials denied plans to use nuclear weapons ("the US has no plans or intentions of using nuclear weapons," according to State Department spokesperson James Rubin on 6 February) they were also careful not to rule out the option of such use (as Rubin added, "we do not rule out in advance any capability available to us."). See the article by Stephen Schwartz in this issue for a critical assessment of this policy.

According to reports, many deputies in the Duma debates of early February commented that military action would render ratification of the START II treaty highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

On 12 February, US Defense Secretary William Cohen met his counterpart Marshall Igor Sergeyev in Moscow. Speaking in front of reporters, Sergeyev quoted Abraham Lincoln - "Force is all-conquering but its victories are short-lived" - and told Cohen: "I would like to relay to you our deep concern over the possible prospects for Russian-US relations in the military field...if military action occurs... Is America ready for all the possible consequences? Does the uncompromising and tough stand of the United States on the issue of Iraq help to strengthen stability and security in the world?"

Equivocal and Reserved Positions

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

On 11 February, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassam bin Jabr al-Thani, stated that "the Gulf Cooperation Council States [Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates] do not welcome and do not want to see Iraq being hit and bombed again. We care for the Iraqi people..." However, speaking in the United Arab Emirates, US Defense Secretary Cohen, asked whether the GCC States would support military action, stated: "The answer to that is yes. ... They are supportive of the United States action to enforce the resolutions if necessary."


While generally supportive of the US position, Japan appeared reluctant to advertise any support for military action. Some reports even suggested that Japan had asked the US to defer any strikes until after the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano.

On 13 February, Japan's Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi and US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson issued a joint statement on the crisis. According to Richardson, in the statement "Japan shared the view of the United States that a diplomatic solution, based on full Iraqi compliance with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, is the best solution - and that all options remain on the table."

Saudi Arabia

Although not condemning in advance any US military action, Saudi Arabia made clear that it would not take any part in any operation, or allow its territory to be used. According to an unnamed Saudi official, quoted on 1 February:

"Saudi Arabia will not allow any strikes against Iraq, under any circumstances, from its soil or bases in Saudi Arabia, due to the sensitivity of the issue in the Arab and Muslim world."

The Debate in the US

There was overwhelming political support for military action in the US Congress and among many commentators, with the main fear sometimes voiced that that action would be insufficient and half-hearted, or derailed by Russian, French or UN diplomacy. However, although opinion polls suggested a clear public majority in support of the Administration's stance, embarassingly strong condemnation - both from those opposed to any military action, and those wanting an all-out military offensive - was voiced at a nationally televised public meeting held in Columbus, Ohio, on 18 February, addressed by Secretary of State Albright, Defense Secretary Cohen and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger.

Typical of Congressional sentiments of support for the Administration's position were the 1 February remarks of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Republican - Georgia): "If the inspectors are there, we have no reason to bomb. This is all in Saddam's hands... There is a growing commitment to supporting the United States in stopping Saddam from getting those kind of terror weapons."

On 19 February, speaking to the Reuters news agency, former US President Jimmy Carter expressed his disquiet about the human consequences of an unsuccessful military strike: "I am concerned that if Saddam Hussein really does have anthrax and other terrible biological and chemical weapons, one of our cruise missiles would hit one of his factories and cause untold loss of lives and devastation..."

Oil-for-Food Resolution

On 20 February, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1153, establishing, as recommended by the Secretary-General (see last issue), a limit of $5.256 billion in Iraqi oil exports over a 180-day period to provide funds for emergency humanitarian relief. The previous 180-day revenue-limit of the 'oil-for food programme' - first agreed by the Council in resolution 986 of 1995 - was $2 billion, a figure widely regarded as seriously inadequate. The 180-day sales period will begin immediately the Secretary-General informs the Council that a satisfactory distribution plan has been agreed.

The US and UK argued that their support for the resolution showed they were compassionate about the plight of civilians in Iraq. Both States also claimed that the implementation of previous oil-for-food programmes had been thwarted or hindered by Iraqi obstruction, and that the blame with any future delays would also like with Baghdad. UK Ambassador Sir John Weston observed (20 February):

"The Government of Iraq must accept this resolution so that the people of Iraq can get the help they so desperately need. If it does not, we know exactly who is to blame..."


Saudis will not help in Iraq attack, Associated Press, 1 February; Gingrich tells Saddam - bow to UN or face strikes, Reuters, 1 February; US buoyed by Arab support, United Press International, 2 February; Russia - US can't use weapons in Iraq, United Press International, 3 February; Yeltsin - Clinton could start world war, United Press International, 4 February; Envoy says Yeltsin's remarks on Iraq 'distorted', Reuters, 4 February; US downplays Yeltsin criticisms, United Press International, 4 February; Yeltsin - Clinton risks world war, Associated Press, 5 February; Yeltsin hopeful, others cautious over Iraq, Reuters, 5 February; China, France oppose Iraq attack, Associated Press, 5 February; Nuclear strikes to cause heavy civilian casualties, Itar-Tass, 5 February; US - no plans to use nukes on Iraq, Reuters, 6 February; Japan asks US to avoid attack, Associated Press, 7 February; Iraq - weapons talks making progress, Associated Press, 8 February; Cohen picks up allied support in Iraq drive, Reuters, 8 February; Albright - proposed new NATO partners support anti-Iraq action, United States Information Service, 9 February; Canada, Australia to join US in potential strike on Iraq, United States Information Service, 10 February; Support is growing for use of force against Iraq, Albright says, United States Information Service, 10 February; US rebuffs Iraq on suspected arms sites, Reuters, 11 February; Gulf States disagree on help for US action, Reuters, 11 February; Cohen gets lectured in Russia, Associated Press, 12 February; Russian defense chief blasts US over Iraq, Reuters, 12 February; Britain blasts Iraq offer on sites as 'hopeless,' Reuters, 12 February; Transcript - Richardson-Obuchi joint statement on Iraq, United States Information Service, 13 February; Text - Argentine military contribution to Iraq effort, United States Information Service, 13 February; UN team begins to map Iraqi sites, Associated Press, 15 February; NZ backs military anti-Iraq coalition, US stance, Reuters, 16 February; UN Security Council gives Annan strong send-off to Baghdad, United States Information Service, 18 February; Iraq town hall meeting turns sour, United Press International, 18 February; European leaders' statements supporting US position on Iraq, United States Information Service, 19 February; UN Chief Annan holds Paris talks on Iraq, Reuters, 19 February; Security Council increases Iraq's oil exports to $5.526 billion under 'oil-for-food' programme for new 180-day period, United Nations Press Release SC/6478, 20 February; UN Security Council doubles aid program for Iraqi civilians, United States Information Service, 20 February; Mubarak - US interests at risk over Iraq, Reuters, 22 February; US to press 'national interest' on Iraq, Reuters, 22 February; Transcript of doorstep interview given by the Foreign secretary, UK Foreign Office Daily Bulletin, 23 February; Transcript - Clinton remarks on UN-Iraqi agreement, United States Information Service, 23 February; Nations welcome UN deal with Iraq, Associated Press, 23 February; UN Chef, Iraq sign weapons deal, Associated Press, 23 February; Clinton endorses Iraq deal, troops stay put, Reuters, 23 February; UN's Annan feted, world leaders cautious, Reuters, 24 February; Key points of Iraq agreement, Associated Press, 24 February; Iraq hails weapons deal as victory, Associated Press, 24 February; Annan optimistic Iraqi agreement will work, United States Information Service, 24 February; US backs Iraq deal, Reuters, 25 February; US wary on Iraq deal, seeks clarification, Reuters, 25 February; Sen. Lott attacks UN-Iraq deal, Associated Press, 25 February; 'Chaperone' named for UN inspectors, Associated Press, 26 February; Dhanapala appointed head of special UNSCOM inspection group, United States Information Service, 26 February; GOP blasts UN-Iraq accord, Associated Press, 26 February; Don't bash the UN, Albright says, test the UN-Iraq accord, United States Information Service, 26 February; Albright optimistic on Iraqi inspection teams, Reuters, 27 February.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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