In TIME This Week:
What Really Happened At 2 A.M. In Geneva
By Douglas Waller/Geneva
(TIME, December 1) -- Yevgeni Primakov was in high spirits as he pulled a chair up to a horseshoe-shaped table in Geneva's Palace of Nations. Seven years earlier, the Russian Foreign Minister had been hunkered down in a Baghdad bunker with American bombs falling around him after he failed to broker a deal to head off the Gulf War. Now, with two U.S. carrier battle groups and 300 warplanes poised in the Persian Gulf for another major strike against Iraq, the pressure was on Primakov once more. But this time he was sure he could keep the guns silent. "I think it's going to work out," he said confidently, sliding a one-page statement across the table to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that in effect spelled out Saddam Hussein's agreement to allow United Nations inspectors back into Iraq.
Albright lifted the document, then began looking around the room in bewilderment. The problem: the crucial paper was in Russian. The 2 a.m. meeting in Geneva last Thursday was so hastily convened that there had been no time for papers to be translated. Albright quickly summoned her translator, who dictated in English to an aide pecking on a laptop computer the words that would eventually head off--at least for a while--another military conflict.
Call it diplomacy on the fly. By expelling the inspectors two weeks ago, Saddam had sparked the tensest standoff with the U.S. since the Gulf War. President Clinton had threatened a massive attack against Iraq, but only Britain was willing to go along with it. The other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--Russia, France and China--opposed military action, as did every country in the Middle East. That left diplomacy, which the White House began intensely two weekends ago when Clinton telephoned Russian President Boris Yeltsin to give him the green light to find a way out of the crisis. Eager to have the U.N. sanctions lifted so that Russia could trade with Iraq, Yeltsin summoned Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to Moscow. Meanwhile, Albright warned Primakov that even though Clinton was also eager to have a solution, Washington wanted nothing less than Saddam's complete capitulation. There could be no deals like Baghdad's previous offer to allow only a few Americans back in as a face-saving gesture, Albright told Primakov. "The Iraqis lost the war. They cannot dictate terms to us."
The no-deals message, however, became muddled the next day when a senior Albright aide told reporters that the U.S. was prepared to offer "a little carrot" to Iraq and allow it to sell more oil internationally to buy food and medicine. A furious Clinton ordered senior aides to disavow the comment. "There should be no trading for any carrots in order to get [Saddam's] compliance," said Defense Secretary William Cohen.
By last Tuesday, Primakov had won a tentative agreement from Aziz that all the American inspectors would return to Iraq. In exchange, Russia would vigorously press Baghdad's case in the U.N. for lifting economic sanctions and wrapping up the inspections. Primakov then produced a one-page statement of what would be expected of Iraq, which Aziz took to Baghdad.
The next day, Primakov telephoned Albright, who was in New Delhi as part of a tour of South Asia and the Middle East. Iraq was willing to take back the inspectors with no strings attached, the Russian envoy believed, although he refused to fax Albright a copy of the one-page statement he had drafted because Aziz hadn't yet obtained Baghdad's approval of its terms.
Albright was suspicious. Primakov might have cut side deals with Baghdad that Washington would find unacceptable, so she demanded that the two of them, plus British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, meet to review the Russian statement. The only time the four envoys could fit a meeting into their packed schedules was at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. the next day. Albright, who had already spent a grueling week shuttling and sleeping most nights on her jet, cut short the New Delhi visit and rushed to Geneva.
In a bare conference room in the Palace of Nations, waiters brought in trays of steaming coffee to help keep alert the four envoys and a lower-level representative from China. Aziz by then had Baghdad's assent to the terms in the Russian statement, Primakov told the group. Iraq would allow all the inspectors, including the Americans, to return with no restrictions on their movements. It was important that the ministers now accept the Russian document as a joint statement on what the West expected of Iraq, he argued.
Albright, who is on a first-name basis with Primakov, was nevertheless wary. "Yevgeni, I hope you understand where our red lines are," she warned. "The only thing we're going to accept is unconditional Iraqi compliance." The one bone Moscow had thrown Saddam was to lobby for Iraq in the Security Council, Primakov assured her. "I entered into no obligations on behalf of anyone else."
The diplomats haggled for the next two hours over the language in the joint statement. Back in Washington, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger kept a phone line open to the palace. Clinton, who was watching the new film Welcome to Sarajevo in the White House family quarters, slipped away from the screening twice for updates on developments in Geneva. Albright demanded that the adjective "unconditional" be inserted in one phrase spelling out Iraqi acceptance of U.N. inspections. In another paragraph, the Americans added that the team would look for ways to make its "work more effective"--diplomatic code words for hunting for weapons in more places.
By 4 a.m. the exhausted diplomats had produced a statement with tougher language than Primakov had first proposed. Later that morning, Iraq's Revolutionary Council announced it would accept the inspectors. But the White House wasn't at all sure Baghdad would follow the conditions spelled out in the Geneva document, so Clinton ordered U.S. forces to remain in the gulf in case Saddam reneged. "I'd rather read the last chapter of this book before I decide whether I like it or not," Berger said. But the last chapter may be a long time coming.
-- With reporting by Jay Branegan and Dean Fischer/Washington
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