Global Policy Forum

Iraq Cuts Exports, in Move That Foils


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
November 23, 1999

UNITED NATIONS -- Iraq Monday unexpectedly began to cut off the oil it is allowed to export in exchange for food and other basic supplies, after the Security Council extended the program for only two weeks. Fred Eckhard, the United Nations spokesman, said independent experts reported Monday morning that Iraq had cut the flow of oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and was preparing to stop shipments from the Iraqi port of Mina al Bakr on Tuesday. Those ports are Iraq's main export points.

The Iraqis said the cuts were ordered to protest the Security Council's failure last week to extend the program for six months, as in the past. After Russia tried to improve the terms of the oil-for-food program for Iraq, the council chose to extend the program for only two weeks. The United Nations permits Iraq to export controlled amounts of oil in exchange for basic supplies, to mitigate the effects of long-term sanctions ordered against the government of President Saddam Hussein. The sanctions were imposed because of the government's failure to demonstrate that it had eliminated production of weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq exported more than $7 billion worth of oil over the last six months, an amount that equals about 5 percent of the oil sold worldwide. After the Iraqi cutbacks, crude oil prices rose in the New York market by almost a dollar, to more than $27 a barrel, a nine-year high. Iraq's rationale for cutting its exports was not immediately evident to diplomats here.

In the past, Iraq has repeatedly generated crises to pressure its adversaries, and some diplomats thought that President Hussein would use any cutoff of food to claim that the economic sanctions were causing ordinary people to suffer. The initial speculation was that the cutoff of oil exports was temporary. If Iraq fails to carry out the program, "it will be thumbing its nose at the international community again," said James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman. "Every time that Iraq shows its contempt for the world, and its contempt for the world's concern about the people of Iraq, it only makes it harder for Iraq's positions to be taken seriously in the Security Council," he said.

The Security Council debate has focused on reaching an agreement among the five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, each of which can veto an agreement -- to send disarmament inspectors back into Iraq after a year's absence. The efforts have been focused on finding a formula that Russia, Iraq's main ally on the council, would not reject.

Some diplomats say the Iraqis may have been stunned by reports that the Russians might be willing to drop their strong advocacy for Iraq. Reports last week suggested that Moscow had informally offered the United States a deal to soften Russian opposition to a Western resolution on Iraq, in return for American restraint in criticizing Moscow's war in Chechnya. The Russians deny that such an offer was made.

France, which at times has argued on Iraq's side, is now considered part of the consensus behind a tougher resolution demanding that Iraq accept and cooperate with arms inspectors. In return, Baghdad would get a suspension of sanctions -- but not a total removal of sanctions, and only for renewable periods. The French say they are concerned that Iraq, with a record of secret prohibited arms programs, is not being monitored. France is now expected to back the new inspection system being discussed.

Iraq has said repeatedly that it will not accept any inspection system that does not remove sanctions first. The government, which has long chafed under the close monitoring and tight financial controls of the oil-for-food program, may be trying to hold the program hostage at a critical moment to win concessions on both plans. Diplomats and officials here say Iraq may be concerned that the oil plan and inspections may be dealt with as a package in the council, leaving little room for them to maneuver. The Russians have consistently rejected this linkage, but they made it more likely by putting off a normal extension last week after their delegation failed to change the terms in Iraq's favor.

The Security Council's permanent members are sharply divided on several parts of the arms-inspection plan. These include how long to wait before Iraq would qualify for a suspension of sanctions after demonstrating cooperation; how long the suspensions would run before being reviewed, and how independent a new inspection commission would be. The danger for the United Nations is that by shutting down oil flows and continuing to oppose a new disarmament plan, Iraq might effectively free itself of foreign supervision. That would raise the question of military action to enforce Security Council resolutions. The United States has been silent about such a possibility, in contrast to last year's bellicose policy, which led to the bombing of Iraq in December and the effective end of the old United Nations arms control system there.

United Nations officials were taking a wait-and-see attitude and were leaving the administrator of the program and his staff in place in Iraq, and civilian goods ordered earlier were continuing to flow to the country, said Eckhard, the United Nations spokesman. "There are an awful lot of supplies in the pipeline, so our work doesn't need to stop just because the oil stopped flowing," he said. "Our hope is that this can eventually be worked out and they will continue the oil-for-food program." The program -- which Baghdad has never liked because of the controls and monitoring of sales and purchases that came with it -- is intended to relieve the hardships of ordinary citizens.

Sanctions were imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. By late 1991, it was becoming apparent to the Security Council that the disarming of Iraq by the United Nations Special Commission would take considerably longer than expected and that the sanctions were beginning to take a toll on Iraqi civilians. The council offered President Hussein the first oil-for-food program, which was rejected by Iraq. Four years later, a second plan was presented to the Iraqis, who finally accepted it in 1996 after months of stalling, and goods began to arrive in 1997. The current plan, as amended, allowed Iraq to export $5.26 billion worth of oil every six months. That amount has increased, in part because of the recent climb in oil prices.

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