NEW YORK Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said yesterday that he does not want to deploy teams to Iraq until the Security Council is in full agreement on a new mandate for their work.
The statement, in a morning meeting with the council, headed off the threat of an immediate confrontation between the inspectors and the Bush administration and gave the United States more time to persuade recalcitrant council members to support a new resolution.
“It would be awkward if we were doing inspections and then a new mandate that changed directives arrived,” said Mr. Blix, the Swedish head of the Iraq weapons inspection unit. “It would be better to have those early.”
After concluding a preliminary agreement with senior Iraqi officials on Tuesday, Mr. Blix had indicated that his teams could return to Baghdad by mid-October. But the United States threatened to block any attempt by the inspectors to return before it could negotiate new terms of reference for the inspections.
Describing the latest council negotiations on a new resolution as “intense,” Mr. Blix said, “If the council puts some new suggestions or directive to us, of course, we are in their hands.”
Mohamed El-Baradei, director-general of the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency, seconded that opinion.
“We need unanimous support by the council in order to do effective inspections,” he said yesterday after a three-hour meeting with the council.
Both Mr. Blix and Mr. El-Baradei will travel to Washington today to meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other administration officials.
True to its history, the council particularly its five powerful permanent members is deeply divided on whether a new resolution is necessary to send a weapons-inspections mission into the field.
A meeting of the five permanent members yesterday did not appear to close the gaps.
The United States and Britain have insisted the inspectors wait until the council has agreed on a tough new resolution that would authorize the use of force if Iraq fails to fully cooperate. The five-page draft which has generated considerable resistance from Russia and France after informal discussions in their capitals also would nullify a 1998 U.N. agreement that lays out complex protocols for inspecting eight “presidential sites,” including Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
The Russians do not believe a new draft is necessary, while the French say it should be a two-stage document that would be likely to require a second vote to authorize the use of force.
The Chinese, who also wield a veto, are not very active on the Iraq portfolio but generally fall between Russia and France in rejecting force.
Council nations agree that there is sufficient legal authority for the inspectors to return any time, after Iraq on Tuesday formally invited them back with, in Mr. Blix’s words, “immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access.”
Yesterday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov rejected the proposed new resolution outright.
The proposed text “only strengthened our belief in the correctness of our position in favor of the soonest resumption of inspection activities in Iraq,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “We believe that the sufficient legal basis already exists for the resumption of U.N. inspections.”
By contrast, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a new resolution was “absolutely essential.”
“The access we require must include the presidential palaces,” he said at a Labor Party conference in Blackpool, England. “It is no good allowing inspectors access to 99 percent of Iraq, if the weapons of mass destruction are actually located and stored and worked on in the remaining 1 percent of Iraq.”
No matter before the U.N. Security Council has been as divisive as Iraq’s post-Gulf war disarmament. Underlying the tortuously detailed and difficult technical negotiations are national interests that are widely known and rarely mentioned.
“In the [permanent five], it’s never really just Iraq,” said an envoy whose nation has served on the council many times. “There are issues that overlap, collide. It’s all Iraq, but it’s so much more.”
Russia, for example, is owed at least $8 billion by Iraq’s current government, a debt that weighs heavily in the cash-starved government. As much as $40 billion in future oil and reconstruction contracts depends on Iraq rejoining the world economy. Moscow is a passionate defender of Baghdad and a champion of lifting the sanctions.
China, which has no strategic interests in the region, is the council member most openly concerned with violations of the Iraqi government’s sovereignty. What happens in Baghdad or Afghanistan or Kosovo could easily turn into Tibet. The two nations also have some business dealings, including those through the official oil-for-food program, and the fiber-optic installations that are plainly illicit.
France, a fading power, is thought to cling to its middle ground with jealous vigor. Envoys say Paris is guarding not only its role in diplomacy but keeping the door open for its oil companies and contractors when it comes time to modernize or rebuild Iraq’s aging oil industry.
Britain and the United States are both reliant on foreign oil.
In the United States, regime change has become a potent political policy, one that has met with little resistance less than two months before congressional elections with many close races.