The Clinton administration denies any linkage between U.S. support of a new policy allowing Iraq to sell more oil and the agreement of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to permit continued U.N. weapons inspections.
But analysts say U.S. support for the new U.N. policy allowing Iraq to more than double its oil sales may have been an incentive for Saddam to agree to weapons inspections.
On Friday, shortly before U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan departed for Baghdad, the U.N. Security Council voted to let Iraq sell oil worth up to $10.4 billion annually, up from the current yearly allowance of $4 billion.
Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq sold an estimated $15 billion worth of oil annually.
The U.N. measure would require Saddam to use the profits to buy food, medicine and other goods for Iraq’s 22 million people, who have struggled under U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions limit Iraq’s imports and exports.
So far, Saddam has agreed to the weapons inspections but has yet to announce whether he will accept the oil-for-food deal. He has balked in the past at letting the United Nations control how his oil profits are spent.
Annan, who plans to issue a report next month on Iraq’s oil production and transportation capabilities, also has not commented on Saddam’s reaction to the oil proposal. But he acknowledged that he and Iraqi officials discussed ways to expedite the lifting of sanctions.
“I’m sure this (oil deal) was emphasized by Kofi Annan as a gesture of good will (by the West),” said Zalmay Khalilzad, director of strategic studies at the Rand Corp., a California-based think tank. “It was probably a positive signal to Iraq with regard to one of its primary concerns - removal of sanctions.”
Kenneth Pollack, a former U.S. official and currently a Persian Gulf analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, said the oil deal is “really a huge event.”
The new policy also would allow Iraq to import technology to boost oil production, Pollack said.
In the past, Saddam has used such imports as a cover for military-related equipment. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz has said that without new technology, Iraq could not produce more than $8 billion worth of oil a year.
The expanded sales also could give Saddam a lot of political clout by letting him decide who can buy the oil, Pollack said.
“Ultimately, Saddam sees it as linkage, and that’s probably all that matters,” said Pollack. “Saddam will believe this is the direct result of his own propaganda” about how U.N. sanctions have hurt the Iraqi people.
Yet, Clinton administration officials adamantly deny they pushed the oil deal as a way of extracting commitments from Saddam to allow weapons inspections.
“I never heard any discussion that because we do oil-for-food, we’re going to get some better cooperation from Iraq” on weapons inspections, said State Department spokesman James Rubin.
“There’s no evidence over the last seven years that he (Saddam) cares one whit about his people and that he would do anything more or less based on them eating more or less,” Rubin said.
He added that Iraq, which took more than a year to agree to a 1995 U.N. resolution that allowed it to sell $4 billion worth of oil annually, has to be “bludgeoned into this process through diplomatic pressure.”