At UN, hints of what's ahead
Russia's silence seen limiting sway with Iraq
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 9/13/2002
NITED NATIONS -- President Bush's forceful speech on Iraq touched off a flurry of diplomatic activity yesterday, with France preparing to propose a new, tougher UN resolution and Canada pledging to urge Iraq to "open the doors" to weapons inspectors.
Silent, however, was the one UN member state with any real sway over Iraq: Russia. Without Moscow's diplomatic muscle, current and former UN ambassadors said, there is only so much the 15-member UN Security Council can do.
"Russia is the key," said Richard Holbrooke, who was US ambassador to the UN under the Clinton administration.
Russia's economic ties with Iraq and its diplomatic position at the UN give the country influence with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. It imports more goods from Iraq than does any other nation in the world -- $1.4 billion worth in the last half of 2001 alone. The two countries are poised to sign a $40 billion, multi-year economic cooperation deal.
Russia is also one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the UN body that passes binding resolutions, including the authorization to use force. As such, Russia has veto power over any resolution.
The threat of Russia's veto halted efforts by the council in 1999 to authorize the use of force in Kosovo against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. NATO carried out the 11-week bombing campaign there.
And Russia's top UN diplomat has made it clear that pressuring Iraq was not what his country had in mind. "We are against ultimatums," Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergey V. Lavrov, told reporters earlier this week.
The permanent members of the Security Council -- which also includes Great Britain, France, China, and the United States -- are scheduled to meet today along with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Such meetings are often a courtesy during a General Assembly session. But with the Bush administration urging fast action on Iraq, it is likely to be a key chance for countries to start work.
"The diplomacy will begin very quickly here," a senior US administration official said yesterday.
France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, told reporters yesterday that at that meeting he will propose setting a deadline by which inspectors would return, then allow consideration of stronger measures if Iraq failed to comply.
Overall, options are limited for the Security Council, whose mandate is to ensure international peace and security, not threaten war. While the obvious next step might be a resolution authorizing force if Iraq failed to let UN weapons inspectors return, it is a step that UN diplomats are loath to take.
The last time the UN authorized the use of force was during the Gulf War -- but only after Iraq had invaded Kuwait.
Yet other measures -- admonishments, threats, and economic sanctions -- all have failed to make Iraq comply with a host of resolutions, including the most recent in 1999 calling for the return of inspectors.
Inspections were mandated in a 1991 Security Council resolution, and were imposed as part of the Gulf War cease-fire. In order to have economic sanctions lifted, Iraq had to allow the inspectors to identify and oversee the destruction of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as the long-range missiles that could deliver them.
But UN weapons inspectors were pulled out in advance of a US-British bombing raid to punish Hussein for his lack of compliance with inspections. The UN team has been barred from returning ever since.
While options are limited for the UN diplomats, the pressure to find one that would make Hussein comply is intense. Yesterday, Bush all but dared the 190-member world body and its Security Council to find a way to bring Iraq to heel.
"Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence?" Bush said. "Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"
"That's a real gauntlet thrown down," said William Luers, president and CEO of the United Nations Association of the United States, the nation's largest grass-roots foreign policy group.
That point was not lost on European and Middle Eastern diplomats. Having urged the Bush administration to make the United Nations the next battleground in its dispute with Iraq, they now want to ensure the UN can deliver.
Influential member states are consequently likely to bring pressure on Iraq, after the country's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, arrives here today. Bush's speech seemed to give several delegates the motivation to act.
"My advice is going to be, open the doors [to UN weapons inspectors] immediately," said Canada's foreign minister, Bill Graham, who has a meeting with Iraqi officials next week. "You have to demonstrate to the world community you are not a danger, because the world community is saying to you, we are concerned."
That Bush had turned to the UN -- an action he had been reluctant to take -- should influence Iraq, some diplomats said.
"I hope the Iraqis will find it possible also to make a step in that direction," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Mayer El Sayed said in an interview.
The clearest idea for a new UN resolution has come from the French. But it remained unclear whether it would have any more clout than previous ones. The resolution would set a deadline by which inspectors must return "without conditions" attached by Iraq. Should Iraq fail to comply, UN Security Council diplomats would "assess that situation."
Material from Knight Ridder was used in this report.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 9/13/2002.
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