LONDON. — London -- Like all confrontations with Saddam Hussein, this week's face-to-face confrontation between Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and the U.N. Security Council is a dangerous test of wills.
Since his military defeat, Mr. Hussein has played his cards cagily, giving up his chemical weapons and some of his nuclear technology. But he has survived, unscarred, a number of U.N. and American ultimatums, and he appears, although none of the experts can be sure, to have kept hidden away the core of his nuclear-weapons program.
The latest crisis is Mr. Hussein's defiance of a Security Council ultimatum, delivered last month, that ordered the destruction within 24 hours of a plant that makes Scud ballistic missiles. By prevarication and negotiation, he has managed to postpone the guillotine to this week. At the same time, he is brassily demanding that the Security Council modify its embargo and let Iraq sell oil to buy food and medicines.
The Security Council formally rejected Mr. Aziz' pleas yesterday and demanded Iraqi compliance with U.N. cease-fire resolutions. Well and good; now it must enforce compliance. But not in the way the British prime minister, John Major, appeared to suggest earlier this week. Asked if he would back new military action, Mr. Major said: ''The answer is yes, I would support it.''
Pressures are building for the U.S., Britain and France to strike again. Sanctions have never been President Bush's favorite tool, and he is clearly tetchy about the U.S. electorate's consciousness of Mr. Hussein's ability to play cat and mouse with the U.N.
A military strike would also, so the argument runs, enable the United Nations to close the book on Iraq, lift the siege and allow normal economic life to resume, not least to help the hungry and sick whom Mr. Hussein is effectively holding hostage.
Beguiling. Wish it were so easy. A good ding-dong war like last year's is one thing. A precise surgical air strike on an unknown target is another -- more likely to end up, like Jimmy Carter's broken helicopters in the desert, an embarrassing and counter-productive failure.
An alternative is sanctions. Some say if sanctions did not work with Mussolini after Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, they won't work with Saddam Hussein today. But we now know that Mussolini told Hitler that if the League of Nations had included oil in the embargo, he'd have had to withdraw within a week.
This is the correct lesson: If rhetoric is strong but sanctions are weak, they can make things worse. Emperor Haile Selassie bitterly complained that sanctions seemed to have encouraged Italy to use poison gas to hasten the conquest. But if the sanctions are as strong as the rhetoric, in the end they will be effective. They certainly had a big impact on South Africa, where the loopholes were much more obvious than they are with Iraq.
The Security Council must underline that there are no deals, no compromises and that sanctions will be enforced forever and a day, if necessary. To talk about a military strike and then not to do it or to botch it is the worst strategy. To persist, without deadlines, with the embargo is safer and surer.
Iraqi women and children, the Kurds and the Shiites are paying a price. The Security Council should give UNICEF and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees more money for relief work from frozen Iraqi assets.
Another barely explored, long-overdue step might help to cow Mr. Hussein -- a standing court to try individuals who have committed international crimes. This idea has been debated, without resolution, since the wartime allies tried and executed the defeated leaders of Nazi Germany in Nuremberg.
The International Court of Justice allows only states to be parties in cases brought before it. A simple amendment to the Statute of the Court would give it the right to hear cases brought by nations against individuals. Even Col. Muammar el Kadafi might welcome such a step, since it would give him an alternative to sending the suspected Pan Am airliner bombers for trial in the U.S. or Britain.
Knowing that if they set one foot out of their country they might be arrested would furnish a suitable Damoclean sword over the heads of Saddam Hussein and those closest to him. It is just the added pressure they need to convince them that they may twist and turn, prevaricate and play, but never escape the grinding wheels of international contempt. Persistence, not bombs, will one day bring peace to Iraq.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.