The disarmament of Iraq, key to war and peace in the Persian Gulf, is again in play. An Iraqi delegation made the opening move of a new round in February at the UN. It came with Saddam Hussein's core demands: End economic sanctions and drop UN inspections designed to ensure that he does not have and cannot make weapons of mass destruction.
The delegation ignored the Security Council, which imposed these restrictions as part of the 1991 cease-fire that ended the Gulf War. Instead, it came directly to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, hoping for easier terms. But Mr. Annan reaffirmed the Council's conditions and refused to deal.
The Iraqis will be back in April or May, probably with the old tactic of exploiting division inside the Council. China, France, Russia, and others want sanctions lifted at once. They accept President Hussein's line that economic restraints cause the misery that blights most Iraqis' lives. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on his recent Mideast trip, found so much blame flung at the United States that he apparently thinks it advisable to loosen economic constraints while tightening the embargo on weapons and related imports. Both propositions are dubious.
The UN oil-for-food program allows Iraq to sell its oil for humanitarian needs. There is no limit to the quantity of oil Hussein can sell, nor is there any limit on imports of food and medicine. He has plenty of money, legally and illegally. Recently, Iraq complained that it was not being allowed to allocate 1 million euros from its funds (out of spite, Baghdad no longer deals in US dollars) "to assist poor US citizens who live below the poverty line." Iraq also asserts it has sent hundreds of truckloads of food and medicine to "bolster the steadfastness of the people of Palestine," but says they've been stopped by Israel and are spoiling in Jordan.
Iraqi society has been scraping along in poverty. Nevertheless, Saddam Hussein for five years refused the UN's offer of food for oil. Since 1996, Iraq has legally exported more than $40 billion worth of petroleum. This money has gone into an escrow account that Iraq can draw on only with UN permission. Contracting for imports and their distribution everywhere but in the Kurdish north is done by Iraq itself. The UN has criticized the process as slow, inadequate, and incompetent. While hospitals cried for supplies, the UN found a locked warehouse full. Medicines were found to be re-exported for hard currency.
What Hussein means by ending UN sanctions is abandoning the UN escrow system altogether, with him then fully in control of the money. He would, without a doubt, use it massively to rearm. Hussein is not Hussein without the weapons to dominate the Persian Gulf and its oil resources. BND, the German intelligence service, says that since UN inspectors were forced out more than two years ago, Iraq has intensified its efforts to make chemical weapons. It notes increased activity in the biological field and estimates that in three to five years Iraq's nuclear program could be restored to the pre-Gulf War level. The know-how is there.
Tightening the military embargo, as Mr. Powell proposes, would depend on the cooperation of all military suppliers, and would be difficult to enforce. In today's global arms market, anything can be bought.
And who would police the access routes? Russia and China thirst for military markets and hard currency. Turkey shares the Kurdish problem with Iraq, and sees no profit in removing or emasculating Hussein. Jordan, which gets its oil only from Iraq, is, willy-nilly, a major entrepot for contraband. Iran may hate Hussein but it collects black market fees for letting almost anything pass through.
They all have long been parties to smuggling Iraq's oil, which gives Hussein more than $1 billion a year to build palaces for himself and his cronies and to ensure the loyalty of an enormous security apparatus. The smuggling also doesn't displease those Western nations that see it as increasing the oil supply and helping hold down the price.
Iraq's fabulous oil reserves, second only to those of Saudi Arabia, give Hussein gilt-edged credit and powerful clout with the many who want to do business.
Richard C. Hottelet was a long-time correspondent for CBS.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor