It's been more than two months since Libya extradited the two suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people, including 198 Americans. But Washington is as determined to keep relations with Libya frosty as Tripoli is to warm them up.
Libyan and US officials held formal talks for the first time in 18 years Friday, but the United Nations meeting had none of the trappings of a rare event. No chummy photographs were allowed. US officials stressed that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had arranged the gathering. Its purpose was to clarify what Tripoli needs to do to permanently end UN-imposed sanctions.
"This meeting is not a step toward improving US-Libyan relations," said a State Department official.
Libya holds a different interpretation. "It will lead us all to turn over the last page of the past and to a new page to the future," said Ambassador Abuzed Omar Dorda.
The suspension of the UN embargo, following the extraditions, has raised Tripoli's expectations for international acceptance.
In fact, both UN and US sanctions have proved to be less of an economic burden than a diplomatic strain on Libya. And since the suspension of the UN embargo, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi seems intent on making up for lost time. He is mediating a cease-fire in Congo and looking for a role as peacemaker in Sudan. Today he concludes a friendly visit to South Africa. "Now that the two suspects have been turned in, Libya thinks that its relations with the US are going to improve in the near future," says Mary-Jane Deeb, former editor of The Middle East Journal.
It has already enjoyed some success. Britain has lifted a ban on aircraft and aircraft parts to the oil-rich country. Several European consortia vie for a lucrative gas contract.
But the US remains a significant holdout. In 1986, Washington severed all economic and commercial relations with Libya, accusing it of harboring and aiding international terrorists. Then in 1996, Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which imposes sanctions on countries investing more than $40 million per year in Libya's oil and gas industry.
In May, the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution urging President Clinton to block the lifting of UN sanctions until Tripoli renounces terrorism, pays compensation to the families of the Pan Am 103 victims, and cooperates with the trial of the two suspects.
The hard stance seems to be isolating the US rather than Libya.
Washington's allies have long been irritated by the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. And US companies can only watch as their European counterparts do business in a country strategically located on the Mediterranean. Moreover, several members of the Security Council want to see a permanent lifting of the sanctions. In two weeks, Mr. Annan reports on whether Libya has met the criteria. His task is complicated by the fact that the trial in the Netherlands will not start until February, at the earliest.
"If there were a move to lift sanctions we would veto it," says the State Department official. The US says Libya has not been directly involved in an act of terrorism in the last few years. However, it lists the country as a supporter of terrorism.
At the same time, some other members of the Security Council - China, France, and Russia - would veto any move to reinstate sanctions.