The agreement reached by President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan evoked a worldwide sigh of relief and a burst of hope. No one wanted bombing and killing, nor the opening of another Pandora's box. Yet, there is something tentative about the episode, and the question remains: What next?
Details of the Baghdad formula must still be interpreted and put into practice. Like any contract, it may be nibbled at by lawyers. More important, there is no indication that it contains the most important element of all, the spirit of compliance.
This does not rest with diplomatic assurances or displays of good will. Israel and Syria, for instance, share a total absence of trust and cordiality. In 1974, however, they drew a cease-fire line across the Golan Heights and, whatever else has happened in the immediate area, not a shot has been heard since. Both sides wanted a truce and both had the will to enforce it.
There is ample reason to wonder whether Saddam has, at last, decided to make a clean breast of past and present programs to make poison gases and bacteriological weapons. He could have done so at any time over the last seven years, to the tremendous benefit of the Iraqi people and, by any normal logic, to his own standing as an Arab leader.
He would, in this time, have sold between $110 and $140 billion worth of oil. It would have been enough to restore a decent standard of living, as well as to repair and modernize the economy and industry of the most highly developed Arab nation. He would have been free of all restrictions, except deserved limits on weapons of mass destruction. (After all, he had invaded Kuwait and, in a diabolical rage, torched its oil fields.)
Saddam chose not to reveal his hand but instead to accept tight UN controls. UNSCOM, the special commission created by the UN Security Council, came in and blew up chemical, biological, and nuclear facilities that had survived the Gulf War. Its inspectors rummaged in records that disclosed an unsuspected degree of accomplishment in the weapons field. All the while, they met elaborate walls of denial, deception, and open obstruction. Even today, according to a British government report, thousands of tons of precursor materials for chemical weapons are unaccounted for.
The Security Council has affirmed Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity, but Saddam has denounced the inspections as violations of sovereignty and national dignity and security. He has gained a hearing in many quarters by emphasizing the plight of the Iraqi people, as though he had no part in it. He has tried to discredit the inspection machinery, saying it is manipulated by the US and Britain for espionage and to blacken Iraq. He has accused the inspectors of arrogant "search and destroy" behavior and argued that seven years of this and of economic sanctions are enough.
There can be little doubt that Saddam will use the excuses of dignity, security, and sovereignty to undermine UNSCOM and possibly get rid of it as a remnant of cold war.
This could be done by shifting more of UNSCOM's authority to the office of the secretary- general which, in the nature of things, is more political. Also, the dilution of UNSCOM's inspection teams by adding diplomats could raise new complications. They would soon find themselves called upon to referee conflicts of interpretation.
Then comes the problem of "ongoing monitoring and verification." This procedure was included in the Security Council resolution that established UNSCOM. It is to continue for an indefinite time after the intrusive site and records inspections have ended. It would keep track of all imports connected with weapons of mass destruction and missiles of more than 100 miles range, which Iraq is forbidden to have in the future. Included are not only weapons and their technology but also the large, gray area of dual-use materials. Chemicals needed to make pesticides and fertilizers for agriculture can also be used as growth mediums for germ warfare or to make poison gas. Some machines can be used for illicit as well as peaceful purposes.
This would not be a trade blockade but a long-term surveillance that Saddam is not likely to tolerate. But that is for the longer run. For the moment, Saddam has averted disaster. He has burnished the image he strives to convey of a reasonable man. He has retained the initiative, gained more time, and thrown a few more variables into the diplomatic effort meant to contain him.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.