Jordan Won't Be Burning Its Bridges To Iraq

It was music to Washington's ears. When Jordan's King Hussein went on television on Aug. 23 calling for an end to "suffering" and the start of a "new dawn" in Iraq, Clinton Administration officials applauded the King's shift away from Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The speech followed the King's decision to grant asylum to two Iraqi military officials, Saddam's sons-in-law, who defected in early August. Declared an Administration source: The King's actions will "inevitably have an impact on the dynamics of the region."

But the consequences are unlikely to be as dramatic as the U.S. hopes. Although King Hussein is clearly distancing himself from Saddam, Jordan's economy is still heavily dependent on Iraq. To truly isolate Saddam as the U.S. would like, Jordan would have to sever its economic links with its neighbor.

TINY STEPS. That's impossible unless the U.S. and its allies in the region move decisively to bolster Jordan's economy. For a host of reasons, including U.S. Congressional opposition to increased foreign aid, that's likely to happen only through tiny steps rather than sweeping moves. Says Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies: "The pressure is growing on Saddam, and Jordan is moving more firmly away from Iraq. But the policy will be slow."

It would be political suicide for King Hussein to abruptly cut his economic ties with Iraq. Jordan receives nearly all its oil from Iraq and sells the country one-third of its exports, for revenues of nearly $350 million annually. More than 200 Jordanian companies depend on Iraq as their principal market. They lost their markets in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia after Jordan refused to back the anti-Iraq coalition in the gulf war.

Under U.N. sanctions against Iraq, Jordan is allowed to export humanitarian items to its neighbor, including medicines, hygienic products, foodstuffs, and household oils. It is supposed to monitor trade to prevent industrial products from seeping through the embargo, but controls are weak. "We are relying on Iraq," says Ali Husri, vice-president of Al-Hikma, a $40 million pharmaceutical company that receives 15% of its revenues from Iraq.

MINOR SUCCESSES. The U.S. is trying to persuade Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to boost ties with Jordan. On recent diplomatic missions, U.S. officials came away with minor successes. Kuwait said it would sell crude to Jordan, while Saudi Arabia has promised a summit between King Fahd and King Hussein.

But that's only a beginning. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would have to supply the 70,000 barrels a day in oil that Jordan now receives--at half the market price--from Iraq. They would have to open their economies to Jordanian products. And the U.S. would have to assure Jordan that the peace process would soon lead to more open markets and trade with Israel.

But Congress would surely nix proposals for more aid to Jordan, even for the key goal of isolating Saddam. Budget fights in Congress have already held up Clinton's proposal to forgive $275 million in Jordanian military debt. The package will be considered again in September.

So the U.S. shouldn't count on King Hussein's recent moves shaking up geopolitics in the Middle East overnight. To be sure, Saddam has been weakened. He may soon have to face an opposition campaign uaged from outside the country. But the 58-year-old dictator still has tight control of the nation's repressive security forces and its media. And he knows that Jordan needs Iraq's markets just as much as Iraq needs Jordan's--until the U.S. moves more assertively to spur change.

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