Iraq, Iran sanctions could ease in 2001
By Paul Taylor
LONDON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - So long, "dual containment". Western
policy towards Iraq and Iran - both still on the United States' blacklist
- is set for a shake-up in 2001.
U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq and U.S. sanctions on Iran could
both be eased or allowed to expire next year as new President George W.
Bush looks for a way out of increasingly untenable policies, diplomats
and analysts say.
But there could be renewed U.S. military action against Iraq before
policy switches, some experts forecast. "If Al Gore had won the (U.S.
presidential) election, he'd have changed policy on Iraq very quickly.
With Bush it will take a bit longer because the Republicans promised to
get tough on (President) Saddam Hussein," said a senior European diplomat.
"But once they've spent a few months sounding and acting tough,
I think they will come to the same conclusion as us: you can't oust Saddam
with air power, sanctions or a feeble Iraqi opposition, and it's time to
change policy," he said.
The term "dual containment" was coined in 1993 by Martin Indyk,
now U.S. ambassador to Israel, to define a strategy of trying to isolate
both Iraq and Iran, seen as twin threats to American interests and to pro-Western
states in the Middle East.
The policy, heavily influenced by Israel and its supporters in Washington,
caused tension between the United States and its European allies, which
resisted U.S. attempts to stop their oil companies investing in Iran.
Now international pressure to ease the embargo on Iraq has swelled,
and European firms are snapping up contracts in Iran while the U.S. oil
majors chafe at President Bill Clinton's executive orders barring them
from doing business there.
Sanctions against Iraq are fraying at the edges and even Washington's
most loyal ally, Britain, is privately pushing for an exit strategy, diplomats
But the Bush administration's first instinct, predictably, is to try
to make the existing policy work. Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell
said on Saturday he would work with American allies to breathe new life
into sanctions against Iraq.
"They have not yet fulfilled those agreements and my judgment is
that sanctions in some form must be kept in place until they do so,"
Powell said. "We will work with our allies to re-energize the sanctions
"OPERATION DESERT PINPRICK"
Hardline Bush advisers Robert Zoellick and Richard Perle promised during
the campaign a more energetic use of U.S. military power and money to try
to overthrow Saddam.
Zoellick proposed using U.S. air power to detach part of Iraq from Saddam's
control for use as a base for military operations by the opposition Iraqi
National Congress. Perle said Bush would implement fully the 1998 Iraq
Liberation Act by giving arms, funds and military training to the opposition.
"We can expect a period of very unpleasant rhetoric while they
experiment with how to kill Saddam and his entourage," said Rosemary
Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at London's Royal Institute for
"The Bush people ridiculed the 1998 air strikes on Iraq as "Operation
Desert Pinprick". We are told a Bush administration would look for
pretexts to bomb Iraq seriously," she said.
However, Hollis said three factors might change the new administration's
mind when it comes to review policy:
- the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has changed regional dynamics and the
United States no longer has the same leeway to act;
- Saddam is no longer isolated but gaining money, strength and influence
because of high oil prices, improved ties with his neighbours and Arab
anger at U.S. support for Israel;
- the U.S. military and European allies argue that using air power or
arming a faction-ridden Iraqi opposition simply won't work and could end
in a fiasco.
Bush may also be reluctant to risk jolting world oil markets when prices
are high and supplies tight, other experts say.
"LIFT AND INDICT?"
Once military options have run their course or evaporated, the chances
are the Bush administration will look for a less politically costly, more
sustainable way of containing Iraq.
Diplomats believe Washington and London will make another push to get
U.N. arms inspectors back into Iraq as a prelude to suspending sanctions,
as provided for by a Security Council resolution adopted last year but
rejected by Baghdad.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to begin a dialogue with the
Iraqis next month, just before Bush's inauguration, on how to break a two-year
impasse on weapons inspections.
Optimistic Western officials believe Baghdad may eventually agree to
admit U.N. monitors if it receives assurances that their mission will not
be open-ended but lead to a closing of the files on Iraq's nuclear, chemical
and missile programmes.
However, Republican hardliners do not trust the United Nations to carry
out serious intrusive inspections. Some would rather abandon what they
see as a flawed effort and rely on the threat of massive U.S. bombing if
Washington has evidence that Iraq is redeveloping weapons of mass destruction.
Diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic said a possible alternative
might be called "lift and indict".
The West would agree to lift the U.N. ban on Iraqi imports of all civilian
goods, maintain the ban on military and dual-use goods, keep control of
Iraq's oil revenues through a U.N. escrow account and at the same time
indict Saddam and his key aides for war crimes to keep him politically
The only embarrassment might be that most of the alleged crimes occurred
when Saddam enjoyed Western backing, and the West was largely silent about
them at the time.
Western nations covertly backed Saddam's 1980-88 war against Iran, when
Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians,
because Tehran's drive to export Islamic revolution scared Western governments
and their Arab clients.
Only after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 did the West turn against Saddam
and highlight his human rights record.
RE-ENGAGEMENT WITH IRAN
Improving ties with Iran has been on the U.S. agenda since the election
of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997.
The U.N. Year of Dialogue among Civilisations in 2001, an initiative
proposed by Khatami, may provide the opportunity.
The Clinton administration this year lifted some minor sanctions and
voiced regret for past U.S. meddling in Iran.
But Iranian and U.S. domestic politics have prevented a reopening of
relations. Hardline anti-American clerics blocked Khatami's careful efforts
to improve ties and the pro-Israeli lobby in Congress limited Clinton's
room for manoeuvre.
Washington still accuses Tehran of sponsoring "terrorism",
seeking to sabotage Arab-Israeli peace efforts and pursuing nuclear weapons,
as well as human rights abuses.
However, a turning point could come in the second half of 2001, after
the likely re-election of Khatami in May, and once the Iran-Libya Sanctions
Act expires in August, experts say.
Analyst Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution said the law, which
imposed fines on foreign oil companies that invested in the two countries
is most unlikely to be extended.
Vice President-elect Dick Cheney has advocated allowing U.S. oil companies
to return to Iran - a decision Bush can take without congressional involvement.
"We are already open to dialogue with Iran. The question is when
the Iranians will be ready," Gordon said, adding that violence in
Israel and Lebanon, if it were seen to be sponsored by Tehran, could yet
prevent a rapprochement.