WHEN will the United Nations embargo on Iraqi oil sales finally be lifted? Probably not before the end of 1994 - if then.
There have been reports of a Security Council split on the issue. Some members are said to be more impressed with Baghdad's improved record of cooperation with UN efforts to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the key legal link to lifting the oil embargo.
But UN diplomats say that a sense of deep caution and the desire to keep a united front in the Council are likely to prevail. ``There is no major divergence,'' says one Western diplomat.
The Council is due to get a progress report later this week from Rolf Ekeus, head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraqi disarmament who has been in Baghdad this week talking with Iraqi officials. The Council's next formal 60-day review of sanctions, which bar all trade with Iraq except food and medicine, comes mid-May.
UN efforts to oversee the destruction of Iraq's prohibited weapons over the last three years have faced every challenge, from harassment to outright deception.
Yet since late last year, Mr. Ekeus has spoken of Iraq's ``new attitude.'' The end of the weapons job finally is in sight. The major remaining roadblock fell last fall when Baghdad agreed to allow the UN to monitor Iraqi industry on a long-term basis to ensure against development of weapons of mass destruction. Current UN-Iraqi talks center on what is to be monitored and how.
Ekeus concedes that a strictly legal reading of the Council weapons resolution suggests that the sanctions should be lifted when the job is done. He has long told Iraq that weapons cooperation is the surest ticket to renewed oil sales. Yet he says that before the embargo is lifted, any long-term weapons monitoring mechanism should be in operation for six months or more to be sure that it works and to establish confidence that Iraqi cooperation will continue. The decision on when to lift the embargo, however, is a political one for the Security Council alone to make, he says.
Iraq insists that the Council must honor its own language. At the mid-March sanctions review, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz demanded a prompt relaxation of sanctions. In an angry April 14 letter to the Council president, Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Said al-Sharif accuses the United States of bringing ``illegal'' political goals into its oil embargo decision. He says the Council should issue a ``clear statement'' on its reading of the pertinent resolution.
The US, which took the lead in challenging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, is the leading dissenter in any rush to lift the oil embargo. US officials say Iraq's lack of compliance with other resolutions - evident in its failure to recognize the UN-drawn Iraq-Kuwait border - and continued human rights violations, including the blockade of Kurds in the north and oppression of Shiites in the south, relate closely to the whole issue of Iraq's trustworthiness. The US says these added factors must be taken into account.
Some of Iraq's neighbors are eager to see sanctions lifted for economic reasons; others want a stronger Iraq to balance Iran. But Kuwait and Israel are opposed, and other major oil producers are not eager to see Iraqi oil flow into an already depressed market.
US officials couch their words carefully. Unlike the Bush administration, the Clinton White House makes no mention of Saddam's exit as a condition for ending sanctions, but some analysts say the effect is similar.
``These sanctions are going to stay on,'' says Gregory Gause, a fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. ``I just think American policy is dead set against any change in them.''
Richard Bullet, a Columbia University Middle East expert, agrees they are ``set in stone.'' He says, ``I think [lifting them] is something - in a polite and courtly manner, of course - that the US is going to block for a long time.''
Part of what prompted recent reports of a split in the Security Council was that at the March sanctions review, members decided for the first time not to issue the usual statement that the Council has determined that sanctions should remain in place. ``It doesn't mean that we commended Iraq at all,'' says a Western diplomat, ``but it might imply that certain countries wanted to show that Iraq was on a good path.''
University of Chicago Middle East expert Marvin Zonas says the US approach will carry other Council members: ``I don't think Iraqi sanctions are important enough to the other nations on the Council to get them to challenge the US.''
Some Council diplomats say that when the time comes to lift sanctions on Iraq, the process may move in steps. A partial lift of the embargo on oil sales, for instance, requiring that some of the money be apportioned into paying war debts or supporting humanitarian relief, could come first.