SADDAM HUSSEIN and the United Nations are finally discussing adjustments in the UN sanctions on Iraq that would ease the suffering of the Iraqi population. The first round of negotiations will wrap up in New York this week.
Such adjustments are welcome and needed. The UN, however, must avoid the temptation to accept Saddam's terms in order to get matters resolved. The terms he wants would enrich him and bolster his power. The UN should instead insist on a strict regime that prevents Saddam from controlling aid distribution in Iraq or expanding Iraq's smuggling network.
The UN has strictly enforced severe economic sanctions on Iraq since it invaded Kuwait in August 1990. They were applied to compel Saddam's compliance with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction and other matters. These sanctions have devastated the Iraqi economy. Iraq's gross national product has fallen by more than 50 percent, and the value of the Iraqi dinar has plummeted. In 1990, a dinar bought $3; five years later $1 bought 3,000 dinar. This economic implosion caused widespread suffering.
Why Saddam held off
Some blame the sanctions for this suffering. But the real culprit is Saddam Hussein. The UN sanctions (through UN Resolution 986) explicitly allow Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil through the UN for the purpose of buying humanitarian goods such as food and medicine. Until last month Saddam spurned this option, claiming that it violated Iraqi sovereignty. Doubtless he also hoped that heart-wrenching reports of children hungry or dying for lack of medicine would cause worldwide pressure to lift sanctions.
A key issue in current negotiations is the proportion of oil to be sent through Turkey via the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline. Saddam prefers to ship oil in tankers from Persian Gulf ports. This method is harder to monitor, and it would allow Saddam to smuggle extra exports under the cover of allowed oil traffic. The UN resolution calls for the ''larger share'' of the oil to be exported via the pipeline. To minimize Saddam's ability to evade the sanctions, the UN should insist that more than a bare 51 percent of the oil go through the pipeline.
Another key issue involves distribution of the humanitarian aid. The UN must ensure that supplies are delivered equally to all parts of the country, including the Kurdish north and Shiite south. It must also ensure that Saddam cannot divert supplies for his own benefit.
If the UN holds firm, Saddam will accept a deal that eases suffering without unduly augmenting his power. The UN should accept nothing less, for four reasons:
First, compromising on a Security Council resolution would set a bad precedent, making it harder to win compliance from future aggressive dictators. Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the UN, is right to insist that Resolution 986 itself is not subject to negotiation. Only its terms of implementation are up for discussion.
Second, Saddam has still not met the key condition for repeal of the sanctions. This calls for the dismantling of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological) and the creation of a monitoring system to ensure that these weapons programs are not restarted. This issue is critical because Saddam armed with weapons of mass destruction would pose a grave threat to the world.
Sovereignty a red herring
Third, Saddam's past conduct gives him no standing to complain about violations of sovereignty. He revealed his contempt for sovereignty principles when he attacked Iran and invaded and conquered Kuwait. His voiced concerns about the sovereignty principle are not sincere. What he really wants is to sell the oil and distribute the aid without UN supervision so that he can divert a healthy chunk of the profits into lining his supporters' pockets and rebuilding the Iraqi military.
Fourth, Saddam is negotiating from a position of weakness and will concede if the UN stands firm. Although he received 99.9 percent of the vote in sham elections this fall, Saddam is hated in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south of Iraq. He has also exhausted the large sums he once held in foreign banks. This limits his ability to buy loyalty from his traditional supporters. Two of Saddam's sons-in-law defected to Jordan last summer. Finally, Saddam has heavily publicized these negotiations, raising expectations within Iraq. It will be hard for him not to deliver.