Can the U.S. and Britain overhaul the U.N. sanctions regime against Iraq? That's a key item on the diplomatic agenda for this fall. The aim is to allow more consumer products to flow into the country while stepping up pressure on Saddam Hussein by tightening controls on goods that can be put to military use. Another goal is to block oil smuggling and surcharges that bring Iraq illicit dollars.
The push for "smart sanctions" comes partly because the U.S. and Britain have found themselves increasingly isolated on Iraq policy. Much of the rest of the world--from Iraq's neighbors to countries like France and China--believes a decade of U.S. and British-led sanctions has punished the Iraqis enough. Smart sanctions are an effort to ease the pain on civilians while preventing Saddam from producing nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.
SADDAM'S FRIEND. But smart sanctions may be a nonstarter. The reason: Saddam has a close friend in Russia. In June, Moscow sank an earlier U.S.-British proposal by threatening to veto it in the U.N. Security Council, even though France and China were persuaded to go along. Iraq owes Russia $8 billion, and Saddam won't repay the debt if Russia backs smart sanctions. Also, Russian companies have been supplying Iraq with close to $700 million in goods annually through the existing oil-for-food program, which allows Saddam to sell oil and buy food and other goods. And Russian officials say oil-equipment suppliers and other companies are on the verge of signing $2.5 billion in contracts with Iraq. Saddam switched business from France to Russia after the June decision. "Russia is unlikely to fall in line with U.S. demands on smart sanctions," predicts Andrei Fyodorov, director of the Council on Foreign & Defense Policy in Moscow.
It would take a mighty quid pro quo to get the Russians to cave in. But the U.S. has little to offer. One proposal, to channel money from a U.N. escrow account to pay off Iraq's debt to Russia, has already been rejected. Bush is unlikely to trade on key initiatives like his missile defense system, which Moscow opposes unless the U.S. negotiates a treaty to replace the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. "We want to change the Russians' behavior, but we haven't offered the carrots to [do it]," says Michael A. McFaul, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The U.S. and Britain face a Nov. 30 deadline for resolving the issue. That's when the U.N. must decide whether to renew the oil-for-food program. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are expected to discuss sanctions when they meet at the U.N. General Assembly session that starts on Sept. 24. Bush will also have a chance to cajole Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Shanghai in October and at a summit scheduled for Bush's Texas ranch in November.
If Putin can't be swayed, pressure will grow within the Administration to take a tougher line on Iraq. Pentagon hard-liners are pushing for more bombings--a policy likely to spur protests from Arab countries and even Europe.
Saddam, meanwhile, is benefiting handsomely from the status quo. Analysts say he could be raking in $300 million a year or more by slapping illegal surcharges on Iraqi oil and sneaking oil out through neighbors such as Syria. That's money he can use to buy weapons. As Saddam lures his neighbors and Russia to further boost business ties with Iraq, the U.S. and Britain may once again have to rethink sanctions policy--or face fighting the Iraqi strongman mainly on their own. The arrest of three suspected Irish Republican Army members in Colombia on charges of training a local Marxist guerrilla group is a potentially huge embarrassment for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, is under pressure from London and Dublin to persuade the paramilitaries to give up their weapons so the stalled Northern Ireland peace process can restart. The Bush Administration is already skeptical of Adams, who was buddies with former President Clinton. Things could get frostier if the charges, lodged on Aug. 21, are proven or if the IRA is later linked to Latin American drug trafficking. The IRA men are being held in a Colombian prison while investigations continue. A fight has broken out in the French government over whether to reopen the Mont Blanc tunnel in the Alps linking France and Italy. The tunnel has been closed since a 1999 fire that began on a freight truck killed 39 people. Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot is preparing to open the tunnel in November, but Environment Minister Yves Cochet wants to ban heavy trucks from using it. Some 4,000 trucks used the tunnel daily before it was closed.
Residents in the Chamonix Valley on Aug. 19 voted overwhelmingly against reopening the tunnel to freight traffic. Apart from safety issues, local businesses say the noise and pollution hurt their lucrative tourist industry. Gayssot has called a meeting for Oct. 1 to hear local complaints.