Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a move that launched the Persian Gulf War. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein lost the war, but he seems to be winning the peace. He has successfully blocked international efforts to enforce compliance of the treaty he signed and the United Nations has been unable to muster the political will that would force him into line. Mr. Hussein is unrepentant and that bodes ill for peace in the Middle East.

After Iraq lost the Gulf War, the U.N. imposed severe economic sanctions on the country and created a special commission to find and destroy Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction. It was hardly a success. Iraq played a shell game with the commission, at times rushing materials out the back door while inspectors were delayed in front. When it was convenient, Mr. Hussein was confrontational, blocking access and daring the West to act. Eventually, fatigue set in and the consensus that had guided U.N. actions broke down.

In December 1998, the commission withdrew from Iraq after it was accused of spying for the United States. The U.S. and Britain responded with airstrikes that seemed to give Iraq the moral high ground. Baghdad refused to allow the commission to return, and there have been no inspections since.

That is dangerous. There is ample evidence of Iraq’s obsession with obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad’s claim that it has no interest in developing such an arsenal has been repeatedly disproved by defectors with inside knowledge of the programs. Nor are there signs that Mr. Hussein has changed his mind. Only last week, he called on the faithful to make still more sacrifices in the fight against Iraq’s enemies.

The U.N. is struggling to reconstruct the commission. Last month, it established the Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission to replace its predecessor. Taking a new tack, the U.N. offered to temporarily lift sanctions if Iraq permitted the new inspectors to do their job. Iraq rejected the idea, but continues to fish for some kind of a deal.

Since then, the U.N. Security Council has looked at and rejected 25 candidates to head the new commission. A split has emerged within the Security Council that pits the U.S. and Britain, both of which are deeply suspicious of the Baghdad government, against Russia, China and France, which have reasons of their own — political and commercial — for wanting the sanctions regime eased.

Three issues divide the council members. The first is the question of who will head the new commission. The second is the standard to which Iraq will be held: What must Iraq do to prove that it has complied with the U.N. scheme? Finally, how will the compliance process be sequenced?

There is no agreement on any of the three, either between Iraq and the U.N., nor among the Security Council members themselves. Iraq hopes that a combination of self-interest, sanctions fatigue, qualms about the human cost of the sanctions regime, and growing irritation at the hardline position taken by Washington and London will pressure those two governments to relent.

The dilemma is acute. While sanctions have exacted a horrific toll on most ordinary Iraqis, there is no indication that the regime itself is threatened, nor does it seem to be disturbed by the devastation. Mr. Hussein has made it clear that his weapons-acquisition program is more important than human lives. He remains firmly in power, and U.S. efforts to create a political opposition have failed.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently warned that Iraq’s oil industry was on the verge of “a major breakdown” because of a shortage of new equipment and parts. Since Iraq relies on oil exports to finance imports of humanitarian supplies, the situation is critical. Mr. Annan urged the Security Council to double the amount of money Baghdad can use to rehabilitate the industry.

There will be no quick solution to this grim situation. If the Security Council can agree on a candidate to head the new inspection team, Iraq will comply only until Mr. Hussein feels it is the right time to ratchet up the tension. If the U.N. gives in to him and sets up a diplomatic fig leaf that results in the lifting of sanctions, he will be emboldened. Mr. Hussein has made it clear that he answers to no one. He clings to dreams of dominating the Persian Gulf. They may be delusions, but the world ignores them at its peril, as it learned disastrously a decade ago.

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