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U.S. Wins Standoff; So Does Iraq Crisis Averted, But Saddam May Have Made Gains

Fri., Nov. 21, 1997

With Iraq’s agreement to let all U.N. weapons inspectors return, the immediate crisis appears to have ended without use of military force, and the United States is declaring a victory for a united U.N. Security Council and for diplomacy.

American officials argue that Saddam Hussein had to back down and that they preserved the authority of the United Nations. They also insist that the United States gave Iraq nothing concrete in return - at least for now.

But Saddam has lost nothing in this confrontation and may indeed have gained some ground. While the inspectors will resume their work, Saddam had three weeks to further hide his work on weapons of mass destruction. And the American position of no deals with Saddam, no quick removal of U.N. inspectors and no changes in the sanctions is in greater jeopardy today than at any other time since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke proudly of maintaining the unity of the Security Council and most of the coalition that the United States assembled against Iraq after the Gulf War.

But the future of that coalition looks increasingly shaky. The United States will find itself under more pressure from Russia, France and Arab states to bring the seven-year-old program of sanctions to a faster end.

Despite all the chest-thumping by the American military, U.S. officials also understand that many of their allies opposed the use of military force. Although Washington insists that it did not and will not negotiate directly with Saddam, it came very close, using the agency of the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, instead.

What remains unclear is just what Primakov told Saddam that Russia would do, and what Saddam thinks he has been promised.

In the Russian-Iraqi statement published on Thursday in Moscow, the Russians promised Saddam that they would be an even more forceful advocate for the Iraqi demands to end weapons inspections and lift economic sanctions.

“Russia, for its part, will energetically promote the speedy lifting of sanctions against Iraq on the basis of its compliance with the corresponding U.N. Security Council resolutions,” the statement said. “With this in mind, steps will be taken to increase the effectiveness of the Special Commission’s activity on the basis of respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and security.”

While the Americans define “effectiveness” as better work in ferreting out Saddam’s secrets, the Russians appear to define it in terms of speed.

The French Foreign Ministry, for its part, on Wednesday called for Iraq to be shown a “light at the end of the tunnel” on sanctions, once Saddam reversed himself. “There is a chronology that has to be respected,” Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said on Thursday. But clearly the French and Russian clocks run at a speed different from Washington’s.

The solidarity that Albright maintained and praised was easier to sustain when Iraq blatantly defied the Security Council by expelling inspectors. But this unity will not last on issues that require judgment calls, such as how much money Iraq should be able to receive from its oil, what it should be able to buy, how long the U.N. inspectors should stay and how much good behavior on Saddam’s part is enough to lift the sanctions on Iraq.

That is perhaps the most important benefit of Saddam’s defiance. It will not happen immediately, but he has managed to bring to the fore the essential disagreement among the great powers, and between the United States and a large part of the Arab world, about what should happen in the future. Those disagreements are bound to increase over time.

The United States retains its veto power in the Security Council. But Washington knows the costs of using its veto against the will of the majority, including some of its closest allies.

To American officials facing the prospect of diplomatic isolation, letting Russia make vague promises that the United States need not affirm and can veto later seemed a reasonable trade-off to make, as was the prospect of an expanded U.N. inspections effort to promote “efficiency” that also may just slightly reduce the percentage of Americans involved, but not their number.

And if Washington is willing to discuss allowing Iraq to sell more of its oil to pay for humanitarian and civil needs, now that Iraq is presumably complying with the sanctions again, this is not by any means an easing of sanctions, American officials argue. Instead, they insist, such humanitarian aid allows the rest of the world to salve its conscience about ordinary Iraqis and accept the harsh overall sanctions even longer.

Primakov also scored a victory in his quest to restore Russia as a player in Middle East policy. Russia remains a sponsor - with the United States - of the Middle East peace effort and is now better able to claim its place at the table. Primakov, who is an Arabic-speaking expert on the Middle East, has also put Washington in his debt, even though senior American officials who still do not trust him were careful not to praise him too highly on Thursday, saying simply that the Russian role was “helpful.”

Primakov is likely to argue that the Russian role was critical, at least to an apparently quick ending of this crisis, and was exercised on the world’s behalf, not merely Moscow’s.

But in some ways his role was also easy. He could argue to the Iraqis that they were only hurting themselves by expelling the inspectors, because they could not hope for a lifting of the sanctions while they blocked their work. And Primakov could promise to fight even harder for the Iraqi contention that the United States is itself playing with Security Council language to find justifications to persecute Saddam until he is overthrown.

Saddam may have received another benefit. If the crisis was engendered by the U.N. inspectors coming too close to his biological and chemical weapons work - and not by Security Council splits - then he may have preserved the deterrent that he hopes will keep Iran at bay and Iraq’s reputation high.

Whether he has succeeded in this aim, if indeed he had it, is almost immaterial, as one senior U.S. official admitted. “Deterrence is about perceptions,” he said, “not reality.”

Asked if the same might be true of assertions of diplomatic victories and defeats, he smiled, shrugged and walked away.

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