AMMAN, JORDAN — AFTER a barrage of criticism of Jordan's reported violations of international economic sanctions against Iraq, the United States softened its tone toward the kingdom on Wednesday. But the issue of how to deal effectively with contraband goods, United Nations requirements, and domestic politics continues to trouble the government here.
The week-long blast of harsh statements from officials in Washington is seen here as a warning sign, not the beginnings of a crisis. "Jordan is simply too important for the peace process and the US will not jeopardize King Hussein's position," says a senior European diplomat in Amman. "The Americans make noises now and then as a pressure tactic to toe the country to line."
Recent reports, including one by the US Central Intelligence Agency, have suggested that the Jordanian government has failed to prevent shipments of spare parts and construction materials banned by the UN embargo against Iraq.
Jordanian officials, economists, and analysts dismissed the implication that the government was breaking the sanctions, asserting that the reports have more to do with the US presidential campaign than the actual embargo. "President Bush wants to justify the failure of the sanctions [to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein]," says an analyst close to the government.
In the strongest indication of US anger, Washington canceled its annual joint military maneuvers with Jordan to protest the country's failure to fully adhere to the sanctions.
The Jordanian government has not reacted to the US move, partly to avoid escalating the tension and partly because the planned maneuvers would have provoked public resentment. Opposition to the Middle East peace talks and to any apparent appeasement of the US is growing here.
But in statements on Wednesday, embassy officials in Amman appeared to dampen the level of criticism. "The Jordanian government has taken measures to toughen inspection procedures at its border with Iraq, but their effectiveness could be increased," a spokesman said. "Goods entering Iraq from Jordan, for the most part, fall in categories permitted by the UN, but contraband has crossed the borders."
The parliament, which will meet after a recess next week, has been pressuring the government to abandon the boycott against Iraq and to pull out of the peace talks.
"The continuation of the embargo against Iraq is unfair and unjustifiable," says deputy Hamzeh Mansour, a leading opposition member of parliament. "Iraqi people and children are paying a very dear price. It is just unacceptable for Jordan to take part in such an action against another Arab country."
Since the US-led coalition forced Iraq from Kuwait last year, many Jordanians have come to consider the embargo meaningless, and they are fed up with international restrictions on the port of Aqaba and constant US criticism.
US officials maintain that smuggling across Jordan's borders is bolstering the position of the Iraqi president. But Jordanians from all walks of life reject the logic that they should be party to American policy goals. "If the US insists on maintaining the sanctions to topple Saddam Hussein, why should Jordan be victimized to achieve this objective?" demanded a Jordanian shipping executive who preferred anonymity.
Shipping agents and the business community have been angered by the interception of ships bound for and exiting Aqaba by Western, mostly US, frigates based at the entrance to the Red Sea. Although interceptions have dropped dramatically since the embargo was first imposed, Jordanians insist that the practice should be stopped immediately.
Shipping agents and government officials do not prefer a US proposal to replace Western warships with a UN observer team to be based in Aqaba. This plan, called "Aqaba plus," was proposed to Jordan at least a year ago, but the government rejects it as an infringement on the country's sovereignty, official sources say.
According to businessmen and sources in the custom duties department, the government has enforced stricter monitoring of consignments to Baghdad since last February, apparently to improve relations with the US prior to King Hussein's March visit to Washington.
But sources close to the government said that tightening control of the 60-mile border was motivated by concern here that arms, such as machine guns that are reportedly on sale in the Iraqi black market, could find their way to Jordan.
ECONOMISTS, diplomats and some government officials do not deny that some "illegal goods" are being trucked into Iraq along with food and medical supplies allowed by the UN. According to official figures reported to the UN Sanctions Commission, 15,872 food-laden trucks entered Iraq between April 21 and May 20, 1992.
Jordanian officials said that so far the US has not cited any specific violation that the Jordanian government should investigate.
But the embargo remains an extremely touchy issue for the government, which finds itself squeezed between its attempts to improve its ties with the US and to placate the opposition and public opinion.
"Jordan is in a very difficult position. It cannot defy the sanctions, but it also cannot be seen [domestically] as contributing to crippling Iraq," says leftist parliamentarian Fakhri Kawar.