Abbas Khalaf, Iraqi ambassador to Russia, on March 7 said that large-scale cooperation between Iraq and Russia “is going on even in conditions of the blockade of Iraq.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov then commented “an armed operation against Iraq would negatively affect the interests of numerous countries and no one could rule out the possibility of an upsurge of radicalism, as well as of economic destabilization.”
Russian oil companies operating in Iraq-Zarubezhneft, Tatneft, and Lukoil Overseas — evacuated all their personnel on March 7 and Moscow announced plans to increase oil-export duties by $14.40 per metric ton, bringing them to $40.30 per metric ton as of April 1.
Similar expressions of mutual praise, concern and support occurred two years ago. When Russia used its veto to delay the U.N. Security Council vote on the U.S.-British sponsored “smart sanctions” against Iraq, Baghdad promised Russia oil deals on generous terms.
Then last year, Saddam’s son Uday presented the Iraqi parliament a strongly worded memorandum accusing Russian firms of being “fronts for U.S. and British companies which are being financed by Jewish and Zionist businessmen and using materials imported from Israel.” As a result, greater caution prevailed in the ensuing months, despite rumors of secret pledges by Baghdad to Moscow on the one hand, and Russia’s eagerness to regain some of its lost influence in the Arab world on the other.
Mutual admiration between the two nations has long been a sometime affair. Several years ago, Russia disputed Iraqi claims that Russian companies delayed implementing an accord to develop two of Iraq’s biggest southern region oil fields. The Russians had, in fact, agreed to deliver 600,000 barrels a day, but were unable to live up to the deal. Baghdad also complained that the Russians had failed to deliver on agreements to develop Iraqi oil refineries.
Earlier, the former Soviet Union made desperate attempts to avert the 1991 Gulf War, but there had been prior areas of dispute. In 1979, Saddam had turned on his local Communist allies and arrested, tortured, and executed hundreds, with hundreds more fleeing into exile. This sudden turn occurred after years of amicable collaboration following the 1973 Iraqi-Soviet Friendship Treaty, which had resulted in massive arms deliveries to Iraq in exchange for granting the Soviets important oil privileges.
According to official statistics, Russian firms have won contracts worth $2.5 billion under the U.N. food-for-oil program. But Russia claims that it has suffered losses up to $30 billion as a result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990.
The reality is that Saddam preferred to do business with western, especially U.S., energy companies in the belief he was in a better position to influence U.S. political decisions. Reserve hungry U.S. oil companies naturally reciprocated this interest.
Knowing that promises by its former client are no guarantee of delivery, Moscow apparently sought and obtained personal guarantees from Saddam Hussein. However, no Arab state is willing to give back to Moscow the power the Soviet Union wielded in the Middle East in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In short, the Russian-Iraqi oil picture remains ill-defined and unrefined.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. This was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.