Global Policy Forum

Revisiting the Iraq Sanctions

New York Times
February 11, 2001

A decade after he directed the victory of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf war, Colin Powell faces the difficult task of revitalizing the international effort to prevent Iraq from rearming. When he makes his first trip to the Middle East as secretary of state later this month, General Powell will essentially need to reinvent the rules for dealing with Iraq by enlisting the aid of regional leaders in tightening the arms embargo on Baghdad while simultaneously relaxing other trade sanctions. He will then have to gain the support of the United Nations Security Council for the revised approach.

This page has strongly supported Washington's efforts over the last 10 years to prevent Saddam Hussein from regaining the military might to threaten his neighbors. When diplomatic pressure failed, we endorsed the use of American air strikes to force Iraqi compliance with United Nations arms control measures. Thwarting Mr. Hussein's ambition to rebuild his military forces must remain the central goal of American policy.

But it has become clear in recent months that the array of sanctions that the Security Council imposed on Iraq in the early 1990's has been rapidly weakening as Arab and Muslim countries grow impatient with the restrictions and two permanent members of the Council, Russia and France, press to ease Baghdad's isolation. Recent weeks have seen a rapid deterioration. Commercial flights to Iraq with uninspected cargo have resumed and Mr. Hussein has obtained billions of dollars in revenue from illicit oil sales that he can use to start rebuilding his capacity to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Because of Iraqi intransigence and the lingering divisions on the Security Council, no arms inspectors have set foot in Iraq since 1998.

The world needs a more cleary defined and enforceable strategy. To be effective, the policy must have the active support of Iraq's neighbors in the region, many of which want to relieve the hardships on the Iraqi people that have accompanied the sanctions. The continuing stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians has added to Arab restiveness.

The sensible response is to concentrate international efforts on controlling the flow of arms and related industrial goods into Iraq. An effective arms embargo requires both tight financial controls on how Baghdad spends its oil revenues and strict measures to prevent the sale or delivery of banned military items to Iraq from abroad.

In theory, such a system is already in place. All of Iraq's legitimate oil income is deposited in an escrow account that is managed by the Security Council, which limits expenditures to civilian purposes. Sea, land and air cargo destined for Iraq is subject to inspection before it enters the country. But Mr. Hussein has maneuvered around the financial restrictions by smuggling oil to market, often with the acquiescence of nearby nations like Syria, Iran, Turkey and Jordan. He may soon start defying the ban on importing military goods because Iraq's borders are porous and few nations make an effort to block the sale or shipment of military goods to Baghdad.

To gain the cooperation of other states in enforcing the arms embargo and combatting Iraq's oil smuggling, Washington should offer a more flexible approach toward non-weapons imports. Currently, American diplomats are holding up billions of dollars of imports needed for civilian transportation, electric power generation, the oil industry and even medical treatment because they could potentially be put to military as well as civilian uses.

Washington should agree to re-examine these items on a case-by-case basis. Imports likely to be used in the production of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons must remain banned, but controls on other items could be relaxed over time. This would also likely win Russian and French support.

A revitalized embargo will not resolve the long impasse over the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq. For the moment, at least, the use of air strikes to force Mr. Hussein to readmit inspectors seems untenable because of international opposition. But Mr. Hussein must understand that the suspension or even eventual lifting of most remaining sanctions requires unfettered access by the inspectors to all suspected weapons sites.

The Bush administration's initial action on Iraq was an ill-advised decision to assist opposition groups inside Iraq, even though they have little chance of undermining Mr. Hussein. But the administration has made clear it recognizes the weaknesses of the current sanctions system and hopes to rally support for limiting Iraq's access to weapons and military equipment. Using the formidable powers of a new presidency and his own high standing in the Middle East, General Powell must try to reconstruct a united and effective front against Mr. Hussein.

More Information on a Turning Point for Iraq
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq


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