By managing unanimously to adopt a resolution endorsing the Kofi Annan pact with Baghdad, the Security Council has done something crucial: it has once more smoothed over the significant differences that exist between its members on treatment of Iraq and avoided a potentially disastrous deadlock.
What has been crafted is a text that more or less satisfies all sides. Above all, it gives international cover to Mr Annan and the piece of paper he signed just over a week ago with Iraq's Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz. We will accept the deal, it says, but now it is up to you, Iraq, to show you mean what you signed.
The semantics are at once both clear and vague. If Iraq breaks the agreement it can expect to suffer the "severest consequences". For that, read bombing. If, on the other hand, Iraq behaves and it at last supplies the proof that it no longer has the capacity to manufacture or use weapons of mass destruction, the UN will fulfil its promise to lift the sanctions that have smothered it since the end of the Gulf War. Where the text is fuzzy is on the precise mechanics for delivering those "consequences". Britain and the US would have liked words saying that any violation of the Annan accord would have led automatically to military punishment. In the jargon, that is "automaticity". Other members, such as Russia, wanted it said that military action in such circumstances could only follow further decisions by the Council.
Neither side won outright. What is actually in there is ambiguous language about the Council remaining "actively seized" of the matter. But as one US diplomat observed: "For those who want automaticity, then it's there. For those who did not want it, it isn't there".
Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, the special commission in charge of inspections, must now finalise changes in his procedures for inspecting the eight presidential sites in Iraq that provoked the stand-off. Under the Annan accord, the inspectors must be chaperoned by diplomats acting as observers. That could be done this week. Then it will be up to Mr Butler to pick the right moment to put together a team - inspectors and diplomats together - and send it knocking at one of palaces. On that day, we will all hold our breath to see the welcome - or otherwise - it is given by guards of Saddam Hussein.Reuse content