THE United Nations Security Council has reached a critical point in its efforts to prod Iraq to comply more fully with terms of the cease-fire that closed the Gulf war.
The Council may soon have to decide whether to step up the pressure by means including military action.
In a rare open Council debate scheduled for Wednesday, a delegation led by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz will explain why Iraq feels it deserves not only a partial easing of the economic sanctions against it, but release from some of the stiffer cease-fire terms. The UN contends that Iraq has been uncooperative and must accept the terms unconditionally.
The Security Council session, made public at Iraq's request, may prove one of the liveliest ever. Technically, any UN member may speak. On hand to temper and challenge some of Iraq's assertions will be representatives from Kuwait; from the UN Special Commission on Iraqi Disarmament, the agency in charge of finding and destroying Iraq's most dangerous weapons and the means to produce them; and from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body which handles the nuclear side of that job.
"This will not be an abstract discussion," a Latin American diplomat says. Yet, Phil Arnold, spokesman for the United States mission to the UN, expects a "factual back-and-forth" pattern. "It won't be a negotiation," he says.
Mr. Aziz may well score some public-relations gains. He will meet with leaders of the nonaligned nations tomorrow after a morning round of network television appearances.
Though medicine and food are exempt from current sanctions and Iraq has refused a UN offer to sell $1.6 billion in oil to support Iraqi humanitarian and UN expenses, Aziz is expected to stress that the supply of necessities is insufficient. He is likely to document his case with what one expert says may look like an impressive "paper trail" of complaints about UN inspection efforts and violations of Iraqi sovereignty. Council uncompromising
Yet the Security Council, which recently voted 15 to 0 to keep the sanctions against Iraq in place, is expected to hold firm.
"My understanding is that there's a good solid unanimity of view on this among the permanent five [Council members], including even China," says Jim Placke, an expert on Middle East military and political affairs. Noting that other Council members have their own "sturdy" reasons for opposing aggression in their neighborhoods, Enid Schoettle, a specialist on international law with the Council on Foreign Relations, says such cohesion shows that "collective security is finally earning its lofty name."
Just how far the Council is willing to go beyond a further renewal of sanctions in late March, however, is unclear.
The most discussed option is use of the estimated $5 billion in frozen Iraqi assets around the world for Iraqi humanitarian needs, UN expenses, and war reparations. Yet a number of legal and political questions about such a move remain unresolved.
The UN has destroyed some Iraqi weapons and the equipment for making them without Baghdad's cooperation. But the closer any such action edges to a military strike, the more controversial it becomes. Twice in the last month, the Council has warned Iraq of "serious consequences" if it is not more cooperative. It also insists all options are open.
Just a few days ago British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said, "We have not ruled out a military strike." Also recently David Kay, head of the UN inspection team detained by Iraq in a four-day parking-lot standoff last sum-mer, said that Iraqi arms programs have been disrupted but not destroyed by UN inspections and that he considers coordinated military action by the Council five "the only alternative." Iraq withholding data
Rolf Ekeus, the Swede who heads the UN Special Commission on Iraqi Disarmament, has long insisted that Iraq is not providing full data on its weapons programs. Much of the materiel found has come from intelligence tips and UN reconnaissance flights. The Council's respect for Ambassador Ekeus and the tough job he faces are seen as key reasons why the Council may take a military step to back him.
"The Council is mad - it doesn't like having the people it sends in harm's way insulted," says a UN expert who closely follows Gulf matters.
The New York trip by Aziz follows Iraq's defiance, after first requesting a 24-hour delay, of the UN request that Iraq destroy, under UN supervision, equipment used to build Scud missiles. No exemptions
Iraqi officials, who first suggested the trip to New York to explain their stance, want to convert the Scud machinery to civilian use for the oil industry and road building. Tim Traven, a spokesman for the UN special commission, says the resolution is clear and allows no such exemption.
"On the substance of what Iraq has to do there can be no compromise," he says.
Still, Iraq is expected to argue its case vigorously here for such a conversion and against any UN long-term monitoring of its industry, another cease-fire provision.
"I hate to say this but there is such a thing as punishment," says Peter D. Zimmerman, an arms control specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He recently returned from a visit to the IAEA in Vienna, where he spoke with inspectors who all felt Iraq had withheld important nuclear data.
"Iraq started and lost two aggressive wars," he says. "There are ways it could get back into international good graces in a heck of a hurry - just by not fooling around.... Iraq could say, 'Here, really, is all the nuclear stuff we have. I think we'd have ways to know if they were finally forthcoming."