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Sanctions Overhaul

May 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: It took months of negotiations to produce today’s unanimous Security Council vote to overhaul the Iraqi sanctions program. America’s U.N. ambassador hailed the action, saying it would speed civilian goods to the Iraqi people, while tightening the blockade of military purpose goods.

The Iraqi ambassador called the revamped program a “new harassment on the Iraqi people.” U.N. sanctions were imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. In 1996, the sanctions were eased to let Iraq sell oil to buy food, medicine, and other civilian goods, but virtually every purchase is subject to rigorous U.N. review and some $5 billion in contracts are currently blocked.

For more on today’s vote and what it will mean we turn to William Orme, the United Nations correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Bill Orme, welcome.

WILLIAM ORME: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about this new program. How different is it from the old one?

WILLIAM ORME: Well, it’s different primarily in two respects. And I think it should be seen more in the context of it’s an attempt to rebuild the coalition globally in favor of sanctions, and that’s more significant than the impact it arguably will have on Iraq itself.

As you know, many people in the Middle East, in the left in Europe and the United States, had contended that the sanctions created unfair impoverishment among the Iraqi people, that it was responsible for rising infant mortality rates, scarcity of medicine and food in rural areas.

And so half of the new program is designed to expedite the imports of so-called humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine, and also supplies for the oil industry.

On the other side, until now, or the system that is now in place and has been since 1996, all of Iraq’s imports have been scrutinized on a case by case basis by the entire Security Council. And any Security Council member could say they could not import an item if they believed that it could be used for military purposes.

And the United States had blocked – is blocking as we speak – about $5 billion worth of Iraqi purchase orders, and this had created a lot of friction with companies in France and Russia and other places around the world that sell what they believe are legitimate civilian goods to Iraq.

So the new system is built around a 300-page catalog and inventory of specific items that have been negotiated that will be subject to scrutiny ahead of time. That is, if the Iraqis want to import anything on this list, they have to apply for permission and explain precisely how and where it will be used, and then the Security Council can say yes or no-and, frankly, in most cases, it is expected to say no.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, despite the greater number I guess of items that won’t be on this list and ostensibly will be speeded, the Iraqi ambassador was objecting today. What are their concerns?

WILLIAM ORME: Well, the Iraqis object first in principle to the very extension of the sanctions program itself, it is now being pushed forward yet another six months, beginning next month, and under the system, Iraq does not have control over its own revenues, or at least its declared revenues.

All of its oil income is collected by the U.N.; a quarter of it is kept permanently in an account to fund to settle claims by Kuwaitis and others resulting from the Gulf War, and to fund the inspections program of the U.N. itself, and the remaining three-quarters of the funds could only be used by Iraq through this system where it has to in effect apply for permission to import.

So they see this as an enormous irritant, a break on their economic development, and of course, that is exactly what it is intended to be. It should be said that this is a country, which willingly forwent $1.2 billion in oil income over the last month as a political gesture, which aside from being a demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinians was also a demonstration that economic pressure alone is not likely to succeed in exacting — effecting political change.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Secretary Powell proposed the idea, the so-called “smart sanctions,” over a year ago. Why did it take so long to make this happen?

WILLIAM ORME: Well, “smart sanctions” originally were supposed to have two broad components: The package that was passed today has a great tightening of controls along Iraq’s long and porous borders with Turkey and Jordan especially and Syria and all of Iraq’s neighbors balked at this, because the smuggling trade is very significant to the local economies on the Jordanian and in the Jordanian and Turkish and Syrian communities nearby.

Right now, for example, it is alleged with considerable evidence that something like 150,000 barrels a day of oil are smuggled from Iraq illegally through Syrian – into Syria for domestic use, so Syria can export its oil on to the international market. These sort of things were to have been controlled, and they were not.

The other problem is, Russia had great concerns about the list, because many, many of the products it sells to Iraq and wanted to sell to Iraq had been blocked by U.S. objection, so it really wanted to negotiate in fine detail on a case-by-case basis all of the items, and that took up much of the last two or three months.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the original purpose of these sanctions, of course, was to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his oil revenues to fund a weapons program. What is the best thinking among U.N. officials about how successful it’s been at that?

WILLIAM ORME: Well, frankly, the point wasn’t just to keep him from using oil revenues but was to use the economic pressure to force him to accept U.N. weapons inspectors, to force him to give them complete access to all military facilities, and in so doing to make sure that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction, and is not actively trying to develop such weapons.

I think that there were very few seasoned U.N. professionals, or for that matter diplomats on the Security Council, who really think that the sanctions program as such either its new form or its current form is likely to force Saddam Hussein to do that.

I think almost all to a person have grave concerns about U.S. military threats against Iraq but at the same time, it would acknowledge that it is precisely those military threats that have brought Iraq back to the negotiating table at the U.N. They have been at the U.N. negotiating with Kofi Annan twice so far this year about the possible return of weapons inspectors, and they are slated to return before the end of this month.

MARGARET WARNER: So for instance, does Kofi Annan think that this new regime does make it more or less likely that Iraq and the U.N. will come to an agreement on getting inspectors back in?

WILLIAM ORME: Well, it makes the sanctions program politically stronger because of the consensus that you saw today on the Security Council. That is probably the biggest difference — that is to say, perception difference rather than perhaps a practical difference – in that this is a system, which everyone, even Syria, the lone representatives of the Arabs at the Security Council, has now voted for, but especially all five permanent members of the Security Council are on record as supporting.

So in a certain sense, that closes diplomatic doors to Iraq and does ratchet up the pressure somewhat. On the other hand, the presumption that’s widespread at the U.N. building in any case is that as long as Iraq is actively engaged in some negotiation process with the U.N. Secretariat and at least a critical mass of the Security Council about the possible return of weapons inspectors, that that almost certainly forestalls any military action — that is to say, a unilateral military strike from the United States, it is believed, would have to wait until the new sanctions system was seen to have been in place and to have been tested, and the Iraqis were, in effect, called to see whether they were bluffing, or whether they, in fact, this time are willing to reopen their doors.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Bill Orme, thanks very much.