The fact that this approval came just before Moscow finally decided to fall in line with the amended UK/US draft resolution may be coincidental. Russia had specified that one of the conditions for backing an earlier resolution – no. 1409, passed in May 2002 and aimed at refining the oil-for-food procedures – was that the UN should clear a backlog of contracts, of which the gas turbines order was one. However, the deal served as a timely reminder of how seriously Russia takes its commercial interests in Iraq – interests that a US-led invasion would imperil.

The Russian perception that every effort should be made to deprive the hardline faction of the Bush administration of the opportunity to execute its cherished plan of forcible regime change in Iraq shares broad international

support, including the Arab world. The means to achieve this has been to endorse a UN resolution tough enough to silence the American hawks and sufficiently reasonable to allow Iraq to co-operate. Getting the resolution passed is just the first step. Now it is a question of whether Iraq will be able to abide by the most rigorous interpretation of the resolution’s requirements in the face of what is sure to be the most aggressive scrutiny from the US administration.

When resolution 1441 came to a vote on 8 November, all 15 members of the council raised their hands to give it unanimous approval. ‘If Iraq co-operates there will be inspections, and while Iraq works with the United Nations there will be no military action,’ said Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Yuri Fedotov.

That simple summing up of the 14-paragraph operative section of the resolution only presents part of the picture. In order to pass unscathed to the notional finishing date of

21 February 2003 for the inspection process, Iraq will have to pass a formidable series of tests.

The first will be to pledge by 15 November to co-operate with the resolution – the regime is widely expected to do this, despite the angry denunciations voiced by National Assembly members, who on 12 November voted to reject the resolution. Baghdad is required to provide by 8 December a complete declaration of all aspects of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes. The resolution says that ‘false statements or omissions in the declaration submitted by Iraq’ will constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations. Any such breach would mean that the Security Council would reconvene to consider the situation in light of the repeated warnings that Iraq faces ‘serious consequences’ as a result of its failure to meet its obligations.

If the Iraqi declaration is accepted at face value, the inspectors will be required to start their work by 23 December, and report back to the council 60 days after that date. If at any time the inspectors decide that Iraq is obstructing their work or not co-operating, the Security Council will reconvene.

The US has made it clear that it does not envisage prolonged discussion in the council in the event of any Iraqi breach. ‘We do not need to waste the world’s time with another game of cat and mouse,’ National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on 10 November. Russia, France and China have issued a joint statement saying that the final decision on what to do about any Iraqi breach rests with the Security Council. The implication of that statement is that a new resolution would be required before military action could be taken. The US has said that it reserves the right to embark on unilateral military action in defence of American security.

The countries that will be most directly affected by any US war are Iraq’s immediate neighbours. This sense of vulnerability was reflected in the decision of Syria – the Arab world’s representative on the Security Council – to vote for resolution 1441. ‘This resolution stopped an immediate strike against Iraq, but only an immediate strike,’ said Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister Farouq al-Shara at a 10 November Arab League meeting in Cairo. ‘Now America cannot strike Iraq under UN auspices, although of course the US can strike Iraq unilaterally outside international law.’

Syria fell in line after intense pressure from France and from US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who telephoned Shara ahead of the council vote. ‘It would have been difficult for Syria to refuse after France accepted the resolution,’ says Patrick Seale, author of the biography of the late president Hafez Asad. ‘The Syrians are also very frightened of what [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon might do under the cover of a war on Iraq.’ Seale also notes that the Syrians appreciate that if they voted against the Iraq resolution, they would jeopardise prospects of the UN playing a constructive role in settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Arab support for the resolution has fortified the message to Saddam Hussein to do all in his power to avert a war. ‘Iraq must grasp that there are several international and regional powers that are ready to pounce, longing for any mistake from Iraq’s side that would undermine the inspectors’ mission and show Iraq’s failure to comply with international resolutions,’ wrote Ibrahim Nafie, editor of the Cairo daily Al-Ahram, on 11 November. ‘These forces are betting on what they describe as the obstinacy of the Iraqi leadership and its inability to take the correct decisions in times of crisis.’

Saddam Hussein’s objective is widely seen to be to keep the crisis in the diplomatic sphere until the start of the summer of 2003, in the hope that the US appetite for war will decrease as the temperature rises and the start of the 2004 US presidential campaign approaches. For this strategy to work, Iraq must be seen to co-operate fully with the inspectors. Saddam Hussein, with his long track record of overplaying his hand, will have to change the habits of a lifetime to achieve this goal. And the US is in no mood to show him any leeway. ‘We’re not going to wait until February to see whether Iraq is co-operating or not,’ said Powell.