FOREIGN oil interests are eager to do business once again in Iraq. Yet the United Nations is not likely to give them a green light anytime soon.
Washington is leading the effort to keep the 1990 UN Security Council embargo on Iraqi oil sales firmly in place. The United States says Iraq must meet all UN cease-fire terms and clearly show that its behavior toward its neighbors has changed.
''We are looking for concrete actions, not just words,'' insists Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN. ''It is Iraq's intentions we are concerned about.''
France and Russia, former Iraqi business partners, want Iraqi oil sales resumed as soon as UN experts say Iraq has complied with the specific UN obligation to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction. The two nations cite a paragraph of a cease-fire resolution that links the two actions.
The US view is that broader Iraqi compliance with UN terms is vital to Gulf security and UN credibility. Ambassador Albright now claims enough support on the 15-member Council to keep the Iraqi oil embargo in place for ''the foreseeable future.'' She recently visited the capitals of several new Council member nations to lock in support for the US position.
The Security Council's next 60-day review of sanctions is due in mid-May. However, a major six-month report is due April 10 from Rolf Ekeus, who heads the UN Special Commission charged with overseeing the elimination of Iraq's most destructive weapons. He told the Security Council in February that Baghdad still had not supplied the UN with important data on past imports of biological material that could have been used for weapons. Iraq says pertinent papers burned in a 1992 fire.
Still, Ambassador Ekeus is expected to report in April that a long-term monitoring system, aimed at keeping Iraq from ever again acquiring weapons of mass destruction, has survived a key, six-month test.
Iraq blames almost all problems, from malnutrition to rising crime, on continuing UN sanctions. Yet Baghdad has long spurned a UN offer to allow it to sell up to $1.6 billion of its oil for food. It says the UN terms of sale are too intrusive. The US currently is working with the Council to allow a larger sale on more relaxed terms.
Iraq says revamping that partial sale offer is no substitute for the UN requirement to end the oil embargo altogether once UN weapons demands are met. Iraq Ambassador to the UN Nizar Hamdoon says a secret ballot of Security Council members would show that the majority agree with that view. Public support of the US position is the result of strong US pressure, he says. It would be an embarrassment for the US, he adds, if it were ever forced to use the veto to get its way on this issue.
The US dismisses criticism that Washington is hanging tough on the Iraqi oil embargo to protect oil prices in such friendly countries as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
''We don't accept that,'' says James Rubin, spokesman for the US Mission to the UN. ''We think the Iraqi regime's dangers should be apparent to everyone and that's what motivates us.''
When the embargo is lifted, he says, Iraq should be given a fair quota by OPEC. He adds that it may take a year or two for Iraq to get spare parts and regain its prewar oil export capacity.