Iraq's decision Wednesday not to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspections may seem like a replay of the confrontation that peaked in February, when Washington threatened airstrikes after President Saddam Hussein barred investigators from entering presidential palaces.
And some analysts believe Washington's and the UN's problems may be made worse by what Iraq learned last time out.
"One of the lessons that Iraq learned in the last crisis is that crisis diplomacy works," says Andrew Parasiliti of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "Coming out of that crisis, there were some tangible political gains, which included revealing and exploiting divisions among Security Council members."
In February, the United States and Britain found themselves alone in brandishing armed forces. Now, Washington is acutely aware that it could be even harder to muster support for an airstrike. Iraq has already won some sympathy from Council members. Last month, Russia, China, and France argued Baghdad had satisfactorily dismantled its nuclear-weapons program.
Washington and London have "created exasperation and desperation in Baghdad because [Iraqis] have the feeling that ... however they can cooperate with UNSCOM [the United Nations Special Commission] it would not change anything," says one member of the French mission to the UN. "We think that [on] the nuclear and the ballistic files ... Iraq has done the job it was asked," he adds. "Only the chemical and biological files have not been resolved."
UN sanctions can be lifted only after Iraq receives certification that all four types of weapons programs have been dismantled. And analysts point out that China, France, and Russia may have a financial interest in ending the embargo soon.
Richard Butler, UNSCOM's chief, is under "tremendous pressure from some members of the Security Council to close the books," says Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "His setting forth the blueprint for how Iraq can get out of the sanctions regime was an effort to pay some deference to Russia, France, and China.
"Russia has enormous financial interests in lifting sanctions. They are owed a huge amount of money," he adds. "I think Russia doesn't mind giving the United States a black eye and perhaps increasing its own influence in the Middle East."
Chinese, French, and Russian oil companies have expressed interest in developing Iraqi oil fields, but they are unable to do so until the embargo is lifted.
As Butler arrived in New York Wednesday, Yuriy Fedotov, Russia's deputy permanent representative, told reporters Baghdad did not hold all the blame for the breakdown in talks between Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Butler on Monday.
Iraq gained some political ground when it made an agreement in February with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to open presidential palaces to inspectors. But its standing was diminished last month when traces of VX nerve gas were found on missile heads. Baghdad has denounced these findings.
Washington, meanwhile, is determined to keep pressure on Saddam and is considering asking the Security Council to scratch plans for a sanctions review scheduled for October, says one State Department official.
"Saddam has been in a very tight box ... and we are looking to keep him there," says the official.
Political analysts doubt that more drastic actions would be taken soon. "Clinton has rather ostentatiously removed a significant number of forces from the region," says Mr. Kagan. "He shows very little inclination to send them back."
Analysts say UNSCOM's Butler is under pressure to 'close the books'
on the inspections of Iraq and lift sanctions.