The US has reacted with predictable scepticism to the 16 September letter from Iraq to the UN stating Baghdad’s decision ‘to allow the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq without conditions’. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: ‘This is a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong UN Security Council action. As such it is a tactic that will fail. It is time for Security Council to act.’ He went on to specify that the issue was not just about inspectors. ‘It is about disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime’s compliance with 11 other Security Council resolutions.’

For all the bluster, the US now has no option but to put its plans for military action against Iraq on hold. Washington is expected to continue to push for a tough new resolution threatening dire consequences in the event of Iraq obstructing the mission of the inspectors. However, it seems clear that the immediate danger of war over Iraq has receded, and that Baghdad has put the issue of an eventual lifting of sanctions back on the agenda. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spelt this out in his letter to the Security Council on the receipt of the Iraqi letter: ‘[T]his decision by the Government of Iraq is the indispensable first step towards an assurance that Iraq no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction and, equally important, towards a comprehensive solution that includes the suspension and eventual ending of the sanctions that are causing such hardship for the Iraqi people.’

The Iraq move came in response to a number of crucial developments in the first half of September. Most important was the evolution of the US position, as Bush heeded the voices of those urging him to secure international approval through the UN before embarking on military action. In his 12 September address to the UN General Assembly, Bush launched a blistering verbal assault on the regime of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, but he made clear at the same time that the US wanted broad international support for any action to be taken against Baghdad. That provided the opportunity for the UN to engineer a diplomatic solution – although the US has also emphasised that it will not allow the process to be drawn out indefinitely. ‘The UN will either be able to function as a peacekeeping body as we head into the 21st century, or it will be irrelevant,’ Bush said on 15 September. ‘That’s what we are about to find out.’

Bush’s decision to go down the UN route gave much-needed reassurance for the US’ international and regional allies. The changed mood was evident in the 15 September remarks of Saudi Arabian Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, interpreted as meaning that Saudi Arabia would be prepared to co-operate with UN-endorsed action. ‘If the United Nations takes a decision, by the Security Council, to implement a policy of the UN, every country that has signed the UN Charter has to fulfil it,’ he told CNN. The Saudi minister also pointedly expressed the hope that Iraq would avert the threat of war by co-operating with the clearly expressed will of the international community. The message was delivered to Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Naji Sabri at a 14 September meeting with his Arab counterparts, organised by Annan and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

The Iraqi letter said that Baghdad is ready to discuss the practical arrangements necessary for the immediate resumption of inspections. Hans Blix, the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification & Inspection Commission (Unimovic), has said that an advance party of inspectors can be mobilised within days. However, he has also insisted that it will be several months before the team will be in a position to start actual inspections.

‘If they want thorough and complete inspections, it’s not compatible with something hasty,’ Blix told the Los Angeles Time on 14 September. He said it would take two-three months to assemble the inspection teams and provide them with the equipment needed to carry out their task. According to existing UN resolutions, the teams would have 60 days to determine issues of greatest concern. The UN Security Council would then be required to approve the list of these issues. Once the inspections get going, Unimovic will make their first report back to the Security Council after 120 days.

Blix said he saw no need for any deployment of military forces to bolster the inspection effort. The US had earlier suggested this option, but Washington is now expected to concentrate on outlining the consequences for Iraq if the inspectors fail to achieve the full and unfettered access demanded in the existing UN resolutions.

The Bush administration has made clear its conviction that sooner or later Saddam Hussein will provoke another crisis that will put the question of taking military action back on the agenda. However, the bid of the Washington hawks to effect an historic re-ordering of the Middle East by way of a blitzkrieg on Baghdad has lost crucial momentum.

The US historian Daniel Yergin noted in his book Shattered Peace, on the origins of the Cold War, that President Truman was exasperated that the American monopoly on nuclear weapons was of no avail when it came to arguing with Stalin about the make-up of the Romanian cabinet. Likewise, President Bush may find it hard to argue for the unleashing of overwhelming military force against Iraq in the event of an inspection team being kept waiting a few hours outside a suspected weapons site.

If Iraq plays by the rules, the regime could reach the point within a year or so where there is a realistic chance of sanctions being lifted. That would depend on Iraq showing to all practical purposes that it has finally given up the quest for weapons of mass destruction. That quest, pursued with great skill and determination in the 1980s – and benefiting on a massive scale from the collaboration of European and American businessmen and bankers – has been an essential part of the aura of fear that Saddam Hussein has relied upon to keep his subjects in line.

The risk for the Iraqi leader is that once he has been denuded of his secret arsenal, his internal opponents may be emboldened. That will certainly be the hope of the exiled opposition leaders who have been preparing with mounting excitement over the summer months for the day when Iraq will be rid of Saddam Hussein.

The alternative would be for the gradual rehabilitation of the Iraqi regime, with major investment going into the development of oil and gas facilities and the construction of infrastructure. The prize of a stake in Iraq’s oil sector has been avidly sought after by companies from Russia, China and France – all three are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Iraq has managed to hold production capacity at about 3 million barrels a day (b/d) since carrying out a home-grown programme of field rehabilitation in the late 1990s. Once sanctions are lifted, the government has indicated that it wants to press ahead with the development of several major new fields, with the aim of doubling capacity within 10 years. The bulk of the estimated $20,000 million investment would come from foreign companies, which would be offered a 75 per cent interest. France’s TotalFinaElf has positioned itself to take on the Majnoon field, with estimated reserves of up to 30,000 million barrels. China National Petroleum Corporation is looking at the Al-Ahdab field, and a Russian consortium led by Lukoil has reached agreement on the development of the existing West Qurna field, said to have the potential to produce 1 million b/d.

All these projects could still be on the table in the event of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. However the potential commercial benefits provide a strong incentive for the three countries involved to work with the existing regime, as long as Baghdad follows through on its promise to co-operate with the weapons inspectors.

Even before the 16 September letter to the UN secretary-general, Iraq had given an indication of its willingness to come into line with international rules regarding its oil exports. Oil trading companies are reported to have received approaches from Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organisation (SOMO) asking them to sign direct supply contracts without the surcharge that lifters had previously been required to pay directly to the Iraqi government. Iraqi oil exports had been falling in previous weeks because of the companies’ growing reluctance to pay the extra fees. UN-monitored exports in the week ending 6 September dwindled to just 370,000 b/d, but made a strong recovery the following week. Iraq is also exporting some 200,000 b/d via Syria outside of the UN-supervised orbit, an arrangement that the US is sure to draw fresh attention to as part of the move to impose meticulous adherence to UN resolutions.

It is now almost a year since President Bush uttered the blunt threat ‘He’ll find out’ when he was asked what would happen if Saddam Hussein continued to refuse entry to UN inspectors. The Iraqi leader has now been pushed into allowing the inspectors back. However, in the meantime Bush’s agenda has expanded. He outlined in his 12 September speech to the UN a vision of a region transformed. ‘If we meet our responsibilities, if we overcome this danger, we can arrive at a very different future,’ he said. ‘The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world.’ The principal tool at the disposal of the US as it seeks to achieve this lofty goal is overwhelming military force. For the moment that tool has been consigned back to its box.