Nearly a year after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ejected international arms inspectors from his country, members of the U.N. Security Council are nearing agreement on a resolution that could lead to the resumption of inspections aimed at preventing Baghdad from acquiring illegal weapons, U.S. and allied officials said yesterday.
The Clinton administration has been trying for months to find a formula under which Saddam Hussein would allow the inspectors to return to Iraq. If the Iraqis cooperate with the inspectors, the Security Council then would suspend the nine-year-old trade sanctions that have shattered the Iraqi economy and barred the country from using its oil revenue to purchase anything other than food and humanitarian supplies.
Russia and France had pushed competing proposals that would be more lenient in interpreting Iraq's disarmament obligations under the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. As permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--along with the United States, Britain and China--Russia and France have the power to veto any plan that is not to their liking.
After concessions from the United States, however, France in recent weeks has signaled its willingness to accept the American-backed proposal. Originally floated by Britain and the Netherlands, the plan envisions suspending--but not lifting--sanctions after an unspecified period of Iraqi compliance. The Security Council would have to vote to continue the suspension every 100 days, so the United States would be able to reimpose sanctions unilaterally by vetoing a continued suspension.
U.S. officials say they expect Russia to follow France's lead rather than risk being isolated on the council. China, which has not played a major role in the discussions, traditionally has followed Russia's guidance on matters relating to Iraq.
"We've broken through the shell," said a senior State Department official in discussing the negotiations, which resume today in New York among the five permanent council members. The official acknowledged, however, that success is not yet assured. Nor is it clear that the resolution would be accepted by Saddam Hussein, who thus far has refused to allow the resumption of U.N. weapons inspections.
U.S. officials say that the Iraqi leader has a pattern of reversing course when confronted with unanimity on the Security Council. Given the alternative--continued sanctions with no hope of reprieve--he is likely to do the same in this case, they believe.
Until last fall, Iraq had been subject to inspections and monitoring by the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, which was charged with rooting out and destroying Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Saddam Hussein's decision to expel the inspectors followed a series of confrontations over giving them access to sensitive government sites and led to several days of U.S. cruise missile attacks.
Under the so-called Anglo-Dutch proposal favored by the Clinton administration, Iraq would have to permit the return of an inspection team and demonstrate its willingness to disarm before sanctions could be suspended. Russia, by contrast, had argued for a far more lenient standard that essentially would have suspended the sanctions as soon as inspections resumed.
In either case, Iraqi oil revenue would remain under U.N. control and could not be used to purchase military or "dual-use" equipment that might have military as well as civilian purposes. Iraq would, however, be able to use its oil revenue for civilian imports, subject to U.N. approval.
U.S. officials say the plan satisfies the key American objectives of maintaining outside control over Iraqi oil revenue, restoring the inspection program and providing for the humanitarian needs of Iraq's civilians--a matter of enormous concern among Washington's allies in the Arab world.
"The outcome potentially before us would do those things in a way that meets our national interest," the senior official said.
A breakthrough on a Security Council resolution also would advance the U.S. goal of patching up the faltering international coalition that forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in the Gulf War.
The evolving French position was ascribed by State Department officials to growing anxiety in Paris about Iraq's potential to resume its outlawed weapons programs. But diplomats involved in the negotiations also said the United States and Britain offered significant concessions to win French and Russian support.
The current version of the resolution, for example, would permit foreign companies--meaning French and Russian companies--to invest in the Iraqi oil sector. It also would lift the cap on Iraqi oil production, currently set at $5.2 billion for six months.
"We could look at lifting the oil ceiling as long as we don't give Saddam Hussein free rein over the money," said one diplomat involved in the discussions. "That satisfies the likes of the French and the Russians because they can say to the Iraqis, 'Look, we've won this.' "