A growing number of reports suggest that Iraq is again developing ballistic missiles. Predictably, the government in Baghdad has dismissed the charge. We cannot be sure what is going on: Efforts by the United Nations to inspect Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction are still blocked by Baghdad’s intransigence and a divided U.N. Security Council. The standoff is in Iraq’s interest. While the world dithers, Baghdad proceeds on its own way. This must stop — and soon — but there is little chance of that this year.

Last month, U.S. newspapers reported that Iraq had resumed flight tests of the Al Samoud, a short-range, liquid-fueled ballistic missile. Last week, German intelligence revealed a secret arms factory near Baghdad that is developing short-range missiles; the news article provided a precise latitude and longitude for the weapons complex.

Baghdad denied the accusations. It did not have to. Missiles with a range of less than 150 km do not violate U.N. sanctions. Reportedly, the Iraqis are developing several such missiles that are permitted under the regime imposed after the Persian Gulf War.

There are two concerns, however. The first is that short-range missiles can be modified to have a longer range. The German report highlighted this risk, noting that there is proof that “the Iraqi will and personnel for missile development exists as before,” and that Baghdad is working on missiles with a range of 3,000 km, which could reach central Europe.

The second concern is the warhead. The Al Samoud can reportedly carry conventional explosives or biological and chemical weapons. We cannot know which, because the inspection program that was also imposed in the aftermath of the Gulf War is still suspended. There have been no U.N. inspectors in Iraq since December 1998, when they pulled out ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes intended to punish Baghdad’s failure to cooperate with the U.N. Although discussions continue, last week Iraq said it would not accept a new team that had been expected to begin work this month.

Iraq wants two things. It wants the inspections team severely restricted, and it wants the economic sanctions imposed after the Gulf War lifted. It has demanded the latter as a precondition to the resumption of inspections, but the Security Council, most notably the United States and Britain, has objected. In the interim, Baghdad does what it wants, and whatever consensus there is behind the sanctions regime continues to erode.

Last week, the Iraqi government hosted two high-profile visitors: Venezuela’s president, Mr. Hugo Chavez, and Russian Deputy Emergencies Minister Ruslan Tsalikov. Mr. Chavez was ostensibly traveling to cement unity in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations, of which Iraq and Venezuela are members. But he is also the first head of state to visit Baghdad since the Gulf War, and his appearance could bestow a veneer of respectability on Iraq and open the way to other leaders. Reportedly, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid is contemplating his own trip to Baghdad.

All the while, Iraq suffers. No matter what the intent behind the sanctions, the children and the poor suffer most. The elite may live well, but the government ensures that the international press sees only the hardship felt by the most vulnerable members of society.

At the same time, the airstrikes continue. Earlier this month, the U.S. and Britain bombed two sites in Iraq. Baghdad claimed that a train station and a warehouse were hit. Britain and the U.S. said they attacked missile sites that were targeting their aircraft. It is a destructive contest, that diminishes all involved.

The continuing stalemate only serves Baghdad’s interests. As long as the U.N. is not present, Iraq can pursue whatever weapons-development programs it wishes. It controls the timing and tempo of the confrontations. Periodic incidents remind the world that the hard line is futile, and that action in support of the U.N. resolutions looks like cheap retaliation.

The conflict is unlikely to end before next year. As the U.S. enters the election-campaign home stretch, the last thing Washington wants is a foreign-policy crisis. The next administration will have to come up with a new policy toward Baghdad, no matter who wins in November. The current one is plainly unsustainable. Building a consensus in Washington and then in New York, in the Security Council, should top the foreign-policy agenda in 2001.

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