Iraq: Dangerous Dead Ends

At the beginning of June the oil markets began to fluctuate nervously, the business of the United Nations Security Council ground to a halt and newspapers around the world turned their attention back to the on-going struggle between the world’s remaining superpower and its foremost rogue state. After over a decade of war, regional instability and human suffering, the problem of Iraq is once more dominating international diplomacy.

The World Today
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As one of its first major foreign policy initiatives, the Bush administration has decided that ‘smart sanctions’ are the answer to the problem of Iraq, a problem that has dogged three successive American presidents. Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes that by reforming sanctions he can once again rally international support behind a renewed United Nations embargo. The aim is to rebuild the coalition that ejected Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, stop the steady erosion of the economic blockade, while neutralising the powerful world-wide campaign against the social and economic damage sanctions have caused to Iraqi society.

However the optimism of American diplomats and their British helpers in the Security Council appears to have been somewhat misplaced. Initially Washington and London asserted that the smart sanctions initiative would pass smoothly through the Security Council by the first week in June. But Russian objections postponed things for at least thirty days.

Added to this, there is clear evidence that the Iraqi government has anticipated the timing and substance of Powell’s initiative and has spent several months organising regionally and internationally against it.

Iraq’s announcement on June 4 that it is to suspend the export of oil in protest, combined with at best ambiguous reactions from its neighbours, point to a much more difficult and protracted struggle ahead for US diplomacy. Indeed if Resolution 1284 is anything to go by – the last and much less controversial UN initiative on Iraq that took many months to pass the Security Council and that has never been accepted by Baghdad – the birth of smart sanctions will be a lot more protracted than its Anglo-American parents imagined.

Sanctions shortfall

If the smart sanctions initiative is to be successful it has to address three specific problems created by the length and nature of the existing embargo on Iraq. Most importantly, Washington feels it has to answer the charge that sanctions are causing great suffering to the Iraqi people.

As President George Bush explained to the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri at their meeting in April, American diplomacy can no longer tolerate the spectacle of dying Iraqi children on international television.

Secondly, after ten years the existing sanctions regime has become increasingly ineffective. The export of oil outside UN control is estimated to earn Baghdad between $2.5 billion and $3 billion a year.

This flows directly into government coffers beyond international influence or oversight. In addition, a walk around any market in Baghdad shows the vast array of goods now brought into the country without being subject to UN inspection.

Finally and somewhat cynically, American and British diplomacy has tried to explain discord within the Security Council in terms of missed financial opportunity. The vocal French, Russian and Chinese opposition to the status quo on Iraq, it is argued, can be partially understood by the potentially huge financial benefits to be gained by the oil development contracts on offer to those states that show sympathy to Iraq. Contracts signed by French, Russian and Chinese oil companies to develop the oil fields depend on the timely lifting of sanctions.

Powell’s smart sanctions initiative attempts to solve the problems of Iraqi suffering, smuggling and discord amongst members of the Security Council while defending the United States’ long-term policy goals.

Beyond regional security Washington has had the prevention of Iraqi aggression against its neighbours and its development of weapons of mass destruction as its two clear aims. As President Bush’s statements during his recent election campaign indicate, he like his father and Bill Clinton before him, hoped to realise these by the removal of the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But championing smart sanctions could be the first indication that the White House has realised that the Iraqi government is as stable today as it has been at any time in its thirty-three year rule.

The logic underpinning smart sanctions is the need for the long-term constraint of Iraq. This is a major change in the rhetoric justifying the embargo. Since 1990 UN sanctions have been based on short-term coercion, through a supposedly temporary embargo and occasional bombing, to change the behaviour of the regime. The public promise underpinning the policy has always been that if Iraq changed its ways, if it stopped threatening Kuwait and rid itself of its weapons of mass destruction, then sanctions would be lifted and it could re-enter international society.

The smart sanctions initiative now being discussed in the Security Council departs from this short-term logic. The reason the Iraqis are so angry about Powell’s policy initiative is that it conceives of Baghdad as permanently constrained by the international community. Iraq would have its government finances, oil industry investment and its import/export trade all managed by UN appointed personnel.

Smart sanctions are based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein will remain in power for the foreseeable future, therefore his regime will have to be placed in international quarantine for the medium to long term.

To maintain this long-term isolation, smart sanctions aim to end the suffering of the Iraqi people – or at least shift the blame for it – and reduce the smuggling that has weakened the embargo. The UN initiative is primarily designed to increase the amount of food and consumer durables reaching the Iraqi economy. It proposes that the vast majority of goods imported will not be subject to prior UN approval.

This, it is hoped, will end the diplomatic rows in New York involved in overseeing the import contracts and speed up the delivery of goods. But in order to stop Iraq importing military hardware and exporting unregulated oil, the draft resolution also asks the Secretary-General to greatly improve customs inspections in countries bordering Iraq.

Smart sanction snags

Anglo-American diplomacy heralds the smart sanctions initiative as a major breakthrough that will help the Iraqi people while bolstering the coalition against the regime. However there are several outstanding issues that need to be overcome.

Firstly the major problem with existing sanctions is the arguments around what can and cannot be legally imported into Iraq. ‘Dual use’ goods, those that are needed by the civilian economy but could also be used by the military have become the major point of contention. Almost eighteen percent of import contracts submitted to the UN by Iraq have been put on hold partly because of possible dual use. Baghdad claims that the suffering of the people is because of the obstruction of much needed imports by America and Britian.

The hope is that smart sanctions will circumvent this by allowing the vast majority of goods to be imported without UN oversight. However one of the reasons why the initiative has been held up at the UN is the contentious list of dual use goods that London and Washington are still proposing to ban. This complex twenty- eight-page document looks set to become the new focus of the propaganda war between the UN and Iraq.

Already rumours have begun to circulate that chlorine and telecommunications equipment are on this new list of proscribed goods. If this is true, it does not bode well for the future of smart sanctions. The Iraqis argue that chlorine is key to their efforts to increase water purification. One of the causes of the very high rates of infant mortality since 1990 is the lack of access to clean water.

On a wider note the fast tracking of imports may not solve the hardships faced since 1990. Wholesale and retail food markets across Baghdad are well stocked. The problem is that the population cannot afford the prices traders charge. It must be remembered that before 1990 forty percent of households were dependent on government wages or pensions. Food was also widely subsidised. Suffering today may have as much to do with lack of government finance as it does with food scarcity.

Stopping smuggling

The second thrust of the initiative is to clamp down on the smuggling of oil out of, and goods into, Iraq that has so dramatically undermined the blockade.

The UN Secretary-General is requested by the draft resolution to strengthen land-based monitoring of Iraqi exports. The Sanctions Assistance Mission established by the European Community to monitor trade with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been suggested as a model for this new UN mission. There are a limited number of major crossing points between Iraq and her neighbours and a multi-national force could be set up to bolster local customs and develop a unified certification procedure for Iraqi trade.

Unfortunately the technical logic behind this belies the great political and economic difficulties it faces in the region. Politically, the on-going conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has produced widespread resentment at the international community in general and the US specifically. This makes it very difficult for states such as Jordan to support American backed initiatives on Iraq.

Jordan, Turkey, Iran and especially Syria make large amounts of money from cross border trade with Iraq. Only Turkey has reacted positively to the idea of smart sanctions. The Jordanian Minister of Trade rejected the initiative in favour of an outright lifting of sanctions. With Iran facing the renewal of US sanctions Tehran is unlikely to agree to the tightening of UN sanctions against Iraq. Indeed there is some evidence that Iran has been involved in talks aimed at improving relations between itself and Syria.

Syria, which is in the midst of economic reform, is counting on trade with Iraq to bolster the economy. Trade between the two countries, estimated at $500 million last year is set to double to $1 billion this year. Economically and politically Kofi Anan appears to have a very difficult task ahead if he is to persuade Iraq’s neighbours to cooperate with increased customs inspections.

Finally, the smart sanctions initiative appears not to answer the third weakness of the existing sanctions regime: the desire of key members of the Security Council to obtain repayments on outstanding debts owed to them by Iraq and to benefit from the lucrative development possibility of its oil industry.

The possibility of regulated investment access to Iraq’s oil fields may have been held back by the US as a bargaining chip to be deployed in the diplomatic horse-trading in New York. But if this is not the case, then one of the main reasons identified by Washington for the unpopularity of sanctions has not been catered for in its own smart sanctions initiative.

Overt and covert

The sanctions placed on Iraq in 1990 to force her armies to leave Kuwait were thought of as a temporary coercive measure. They failed to realise this initial objective and troops were needed to reclaim Kuwait’s sovereignty. Since then sanctions have been used to achieve a series of overt and covert aims.

Overtly they were supposed to offer the government in Baghdad incentives to change its behaviour and rejoin the international community. But covertly it was hoped by key members of the Security Council – most notably America – that economic hardship would lead to a change of leadership.

The diplomatic initiative now subject to detailed negotiations among the permanent members of the Security Council can be seen as recognition that regime change in Baghdad is not going to happen soon. However the shift in objectives, from attempting to influence politics in Baghdad to placing Iraq in international quarantine, is replete with problems and apparent oversights.

The growth of popular anger across the Middle East at the continued suffering of the Iraqi people, combined with horror at Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories, has produced a potent anti-western feeling. In such an atmosphere, attempting to persuade countries like Jordan to renew their efforts to contain Iraq is extremely problematic and could lead to increased regional instability.

Iraq’s suspension of oil exports in early June signalled its intention to fight this initiative with all means at its disposal.

Colin Powell has certainly succeeded in putting Iraq back at the top of the international agenda. The danger is that in doing so he has not offered a way forward but is instead leading America and the United Nations into yet another dangerous dead end.