Will “Smart� Sanctions Work?


By Barbara Plett

June 2, 2001

The "smart" sanctions under discussion in the UN Security Council this month aim to target the Iraqi regime rather than its people by lifting restrictions on civilian goods tightening controls on arms-related products clamping down on oil smuggling.

If the US-backed British proposals are approved, they might succeed in re-imposing restrictions on Iraqi trade that are collapsing after 11 years. But they may also be impossible to implement effectively; they are not likely to benefit the Iraqi people much; and they will not finish the job of destroying weapons of mass destruction, the original goal of the embargo.

For the Iraqi people, the main improvement would appear to be a faster flow of civilian goods. Instead of having to get UN approval for all imports, everything would be automatically allowed except items that might be used to build weapons. "We are going from blanket control with exceptions to blanket permission with exceptions," said a western diplomat in the region. "This is a big difference in terms of philosophy."

No Buying Power

The change in emphasis is meant to improve the efficiency of the UN's oil-for-food scheme, which allows Baghdad to exchange oil for humanitarian goods, but keeps money out of its hands.

The programme has suffered from Iraqi obstruction, and from the mostly US practice of withholding what it considered to be suspicious goods. So any significant change will depend on a short exceptions list, still a matter of hot debate in the security council.

Essentially though, average Iraqis do not need the freedom to import more consumer goods since they cannot afford them. What they need is a revival of the economy, which requires an injection of cash and foreign investment.

That will not happen until Baghdad lets arms inspectors back and they declare Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction. Such a demand is not in the proposals, although previous resolutions still apply.

Baghdad Belligerence

The US and Britain say if Iraq will not co-operate, the security council can take unilateral action to tighten controls on the regime. Baghdad's belligerence certainly has not helped in the quest for a solution.

But its intransigence is reinforced by what it perceives as British and American arrogance, and the conviction that the US has no intention of returning control of Iraq's oil money while Saddam Hussein is in power.

The new proposals would in fact aim to take away what money the regime has by shutting down an oil-smuggling operation worth about $2bn a year. That would require the UN to monitor borders more closely, but getting co-operation from frontline states will be difficult. Their struggling economies rely on cheap Iraqi oil, which Baghdad has threatened to cut off if they comply.

Anti-US Feeling

The security council is discussing compensation. But either way, tensions will probably rise in the region, where anti-American sentiments are already high because of the Palestinian uprising and Washington's close ties to Israel.

Even if US allies Jordan and Turkey reluctantly went along with the new proposals, there is no guarantee that Syria and Iran would follow suit. And Arabs who initially welcomed the move to reform the sanctions system as a step towards reintegrating Iraq into the region now criticise the proposals as an attempt to repackage the embargo. "A new resolution must be a step forward and not just a simple change or simply a new classification that distinguishes between so-called smart sanctions and not-smart sanctions," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said recently. "It is not in the interest of the security council to pass a resolution that will be inapplicable for lack of conviction."

Shifting Blame

Statements by American officials suggest that one of the main motives for "smart" sanctions is to shift the blame for Iraqi suffering away from the US and onto Baghdad. The revised embargo appears to be the dovish answer to an internal US power struggle about how to deal with Iraq.

But it still falls far short of a serious strategy for dealing with Saddam's regime, according to Regheda Dergham, the UN correspondent for the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper. "Washington has come up with an interim plan that avoids both a radical solution and a military confrontation (with Iraq) and is based on the co-operation of Iraq's neighbours, thus setting the stage for a struggle with Baghdad over those neighbours," she wrote recently.

More Information on the Oil for Food Program
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq
More Information on the Iraq Crisis