For a time last year it seemed that Iraq was an isolated iceberg on the agenda of the United States and United Nations, frozen into a northern corner of diplomatic waters. Now it has been dynamited out of its corner and is rushing on a collision course with passing ships.

During the past year the U.S. and Iraq have both become more intransigent in their negotiating positions. The U.S. and UK prevailed upon the Security Council to expand Resolution 1284 of late 1999 into a ‘smart sanctions’ regime. This was to include a Goods Review List (GRL), a compilation of humanitarian items which Iraq could import without restrictions. Iraq was unreceptive, perceiving this action as an attempt to entrench sanctions. This was the case for at least three reasons.

  1. The process provided for the ‘suspension’ rather than the ‘lifting’ of sanctions.
  2. The plan would mandate that Iraq’s oil profits from its three biggest partners (Jordan, Turkey, Syria) be channeled through the UN controlled escrow account.
  3. It forced the acceptance of a weapons storage and production inspection system (UNMOVIC).

While Iraq was unreceptive to this overture, it was not without indications of pliability.  In January, Iraq invited the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Human Rights to visit Iraq for the first time since 1994.

Because of its refusal to compromise, especially on weapons inspections, Iraq forfeited the good offices of France and Russia as brokers in the Security Council between Iraq and the U.S./UK and their supporters. It should be remembered that as regards the import and distribution of humanitarian goods, Iraq has continued to co-operate with UN agencies in and outside the country. But diplomatically it has been intransigent. One has the sense that the Secretary-General’s office has given up on Iraq.

Some Iraq watchers are convinced that the Goods Review List would have measurably improved life for the civilian population. Others argue that, while some improvement may have occurred, it would have continued to prevent the reconstruction of civilian infrastructure, the only means by which Iraq can recover from a paralyzing dependency on outside aid.

With the passing of the smart sanctions debate and a burgeoning war on terrorism, a new U.S. policy on Iraq is seen to be emerging.  This is a policy of open military support for a coup d’etat. The United States has acknowledged that there is no credible evidence linking Iraq to Al Qaeda or other terrorist networks.

Thus, it seems to be moving its Iraq policy from the realm of the war on terrorism to that of its larger Middle East strategy. Part of this strategy seems to be to shut down the still functioning UN diplomatic processes concerning Iraq. The decision that the Security Council was scheduled to make in mid-February establishing conditions for UNMOVIC to become operational in Iraq has not happened. The discussion among the Permanent Five concerning the Goods Review List has been put off indefinitely.

This sequence of events suggests that the U.S. is giving up on United Nations’ processes as an essential vehicle for its Iraq policy, except for possibly seeking Security Council endorsement for an invasion. Warnings by American allies in the Middle East and Europe against an invasion do not seem to affect the unilateral policy choice the U.S. has made. Some Middle East watchers assert that those allies would tolerate an invasion if it guaranteed that there would be no boundary changes. Europe watchers point out that the fear of an uncontrollable sequence of military actions, like those which started World War I, make the Europeans the stronger opponents of Washington’s Iraq policy.

The intransigence of Iraq and the United States bodes ill. Where are the mediating powers in the Middle East and Europe who might broker a compromise?

John Rempel is the liaison for the MCC United Nations Office in New York, N.Y. He writes a regular column for Third Way Cafe called “UN Notes.”

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