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The Great Powers and the Middle East

by Fred Halliday
published in MER151
The December 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev summit raised once again the issue of linkage
between Third World conflicts and East-West relations. Two broad questions are involved.
First, how does the nuclear arms race intersect with social and political upheaval in the Third
World? The second question involves the character of the East-West conflict as it affects the
Third World, and the degree to which great power involvement can cause, exacerbate or
potentially resolve conflicts in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A central maxim of much
recent writing on East-West relations holds that the nuclear arms race is a means of
regulating Third World conflict and impeding escalation to the point of war between the
outside powers.
Even more common, though, is the assertion that Third World conflicts play a role in
sharpening East-West relations and that the US and USSR, for their part, help to heighten
tensions in the Third World. Moscow, for instance, uses US involvement in Afghanistan to
obscure the local causes of counter-revolution. Much of Washingtons strategic discourse
laments the invidious role of the USSR and its proxies and surrogates in the Third World.
One central theme of Ronald Reagans drive for the presidency in 1980 was the claim that
the US should regain strategic superiority over the USSR. The other was the charge that the
USSR was the cause of all the troubles in the Third World. There is an evil influence
throughout the world, according to Reagan. In every one of the far-flung trouble spots, dig
deep enough and youll find the Soviet Union stirring a witchs brew, furthering its own
imperialistic ambitions. If the Soviet Union would simply go home, much of the bloodshed in
the world today would cease. Much Third World discussion itself, and the observations
emanating from Beijing, assume that were the two great powers not involved, then the
degree of Third World conflict would be less.

The Eastern Question

The Middle East is an important element in this strategic picture. This region has provided
no shortage of crises to fuel international tension. Current maneuverings around UN
Resolution 598 (to end the Gulf war) or the intricacies of the Armacost-Petrovsky
negotiations (on Afghanistan) display the degree to which the components of the current
crises have long antecedents. From the late 18th century until World War I, the Eastern
question&rdquo -- the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire -- was the most acrimonious
issue in relations between the European powers.
Even long after a new kind of challenge emerged with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the
Western states continued to clash among themselves over the Middle East more than over
any other area of the Third World. The issues were, and still are, oil, strategic influence and
markets. [1] The current Western confusion over relations with Iran, and over the
subordinate issue of dealing with hostage takers, is but the latest chapter in a long saga of
Western capitalist rivalry regarding the Middle East. Despite the recurrence of such inter-
imperialist conflicts, though, the appearance of a revolutionary challenge posed by the USSR
transformed the terms of strategic rivalry in the Middle East and posed questions as
intractable for outside powers as they are for the states and peoples of the region.
Immediately after 1917 it appeared as if a revolutionary Russia would assist social and
nationalist upheaval in the Middle East and pour military support across its southern
frontiers. Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt saw widespread political mobilizations
against the colonial powers, particularly Britain, in the aftermath of World War I. Yet this
prospect, one as eagerly espoused by the Bolsheviks at the Baku Congress of September
1920 as it was feared by the West, proved unfounded. As with all revolutions, that of the
USSR settled within its frontiers; its only successful extension was in remote Mongolia.
In the Middle East, the established states were able to contain the new political challenges:
British imperialism crushed revolts in Egypt and Iraq, as France later would in Syria. The
nationalist military regimes that emerged in Iran and Turkey destroyed their rivals on the
left (the Gilan Republic and the Green Army, respectively) as decisively as they turned on
their monarchical, clerical and tribal rivals to the right. By the mid-1920s, the prospect of
social upheaval in the Middle East had receded and the USSR was forced to come to terms
with the trio of reconstituted nationalist states on its southern frontier. Amanullah in
Afghanistan, Reza Khan in Iran, and Kamal Ataturk in Turkey blocked the way to a southern
expansion of the Bolshevik revolution, leaving British imperialism secure in its position from
Calcutta to Cairo.
Beyond the power of colonial repression and of indigenous national-military regimes to force
the Soviet Union to accept these outcomes, there was the USSRs relative strength vis--vis
the West, particularly Britain. The 1921 treaties with Britain, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan
embodied a consideration that to this day determines much of Soviet policy in the Middle
East and the Third World as a whole -- namely, what Soviet leaders call the correlation of
forces. In simplest terms, this means that the USSR is unable to assist regional allies or
challenge imperialist positions in a specific Third World context if this will lead to overall
negative consequences in its relations with a much stronger West. This consideration is as
true today, in the late 1980s, as it was in 1921 or in the period immediately after World War

Temporary Openings
Following World War II, a new regional spate of upheavals confronted the West. The first
Cold War began not in Berlin or in Poland but in Iran, over the withdrawal of Soviet troops
from Azerbaijan in 1946. This retreat of the Red Army, the subsequent destruction of the
popular movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, and later the reversals that pushed the
powerful Tudeh Party onto the defensive, together marked perhaps the most important
turning point in the modern history of Iran. It set precedents which those concerned with
the fate of contemporary Afghanistan would do well to remember.
Later in the 1940s, Western strategists briefly feared that Soviet influence might find root
further south, in Palestine, as a result of Moscows support for the establishment of the new
Israeli state. But any prospect of a linkup between a Zionist movement still strongly
influenced by Eastern European socialist traditions and the USSR ran headlong up against
the intense chauvinism of the Zionist movement towards the Palestinians and the
determination of Israels leaders to solicit the patronage of the US.
The temporary openings created by the turmoil following both World Wars were, therefore,
contained by a combination of astute imperialist intervention on the one hand, and
reconstituted local ruling regimes on the other. The four decades that have followed have
seen crises just as dramatic, with the spread of social upheavals in the Arab world and,
more recently, in Afghanistan and Iran. The takeovers by radical nationalist military leaders
in many Arab states have provided a set of potential allies for the USSR, establishing
relationships that challenged Western interests: Syria after 1949, Egypt after 1952, Iraq
after 1958, Algeria and North Yemen after 1962 and Libya after 1969. The most conclusive
moment was in the Suez crisis in 1956, when the Israeli-British-French aggression against
Egypt consolidated an alliance between Moscow and Cairo. It simultaneously marked the
eclipse of Britain and France by driving a wedge between these two aging predators and the
ascendant Western power, the United States. At this point the Western position in the Arab
world appeared to be on the wane. With the Pahlavi tyranny only recently reestablished in
Iran, the region seemed ripe for social upheaval combined with a decisive strategic
reorientation away from the settlement imposed after 1917.
Yet these new Arab regimes were ruled by nationalist juntas, often unsure of their long-run
orientation. Episodes of adventurism and capitulation have marked their tenure. The
possibility of stable, lasting relationships with the USSR was limited and the setbacks to the
US and Western Europe far less permanent than first appeared. In retrospect, Soviet
relations with the largest capitalist state in the Third World, India, have been far more
secure than those with any of the radical or intermittently socialist regimes of the Arab
world. The longer-run trajectory of Egypt indicates all too clearly the ways in which internal
social factors, maturing under the umbrella of Arab socialism, in time stimulated a return
to the Western bloc. Iraqs current direction is equally telling.
In the case of Iran, where a widespread mass movement from below succeeded in ousting
the shah in 1979, no possibility of normal relations with the US exists owing to the enraged
sensibilities of both sides. At the same time, the regressive ideological character of this
movement ensures that no stable relationship with the USSR is possible either. Syrias
current orientation towards Moscow clearly derives from its adversarial relations with Israel
rather than any particular affinity for socialism. Today the securest ally of the Soviet Union
in the Middle East is South Yemen, itself a precarious and marginal actor on the regional

Soviet Disadvantage
If great power rivalry has had an uncertain impact upon the course of social upheaval in the
Middle East, the conflicts of the Middle East themselves have played a recurrent part in the
development of Soviet-US relations. Rightwing and pro-Israeli partisans in the US presented
the October 1973 war as part of a wide-ranging Soviet assault on detente. The 1978
factional struggle in the PDRY became a Soviet coup. The 1979 Soviet intervention in
Afghanistan, these elements argued, only confirmed Soviet expansionism. All three of these
claims were nonsense, but they served to fuel the Reaganite dynamic within the United
In the late 1980s a new conjuncture has emerged. Presently three regional conflicts have
become an integral part of East-West negotiation and the Soviet-US relationship. These are:
Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While these are distinct issues,
they overlap in important ways. Iran is playing an autonomous counter-revolutionary role in
Afghanistan, and both the USSR and the US are concerned to prevent it gaining ground
there. Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt have strong interests in the Iran-Iraq war. Iran,
through its energetic presence in Lebanon, has acquired a significant and direct influence in
the Arab-Israeli question.
No one can predict whether some resolution of any of these conflicts will be possible in the
next few months, nor how any progress on a specific issue could affect other regional
questions, let alone the broader skein of Soviet-US relations. The situation which prevailed
in 1972, when the stronger US position on strategic weapons (SALT I) was offset by a
weaker position in the Third World (especially in Vietnam) no longer obtains. It appears
today that Moscow finds itself at a disadvantage vis--vis Washington both in strategic arms
negotiations and regarding regional issues. Gorbachev is on the defensive in both domains.
The prospect is for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, under conditions that would make
possible a triumph of the counterrevolution. The continuing debilitating factionalism within
the ruling Afghan Communist Party is at least partly responsible for this. In an apparent
attempt to buy some credit and time on Afghanistan, the USSR has been more
accommodating on the two other regional issues -- the Gulf and Palestine -- and the
prospect of some joint US-Soviet diplomatic progress on these now exists.
The Western emphasis regarding the Gulf war has largely been a confrontation with Iran.
The US and other NATO naval forces in the Gulf have acted to shield Iraq in a tanker war
that Baghdad initiated and continues. The US has interpreted UN Security Council Resolution
598 precisely in order to justify a policy of military intimidation towards Tehran. Yet there
are two fundamental realities of this war which no amount of bluster and partiality from
Washington can obscure. First, there can be no settlement of this war which does not secure
acceptance from Iran, a country of 50 million people now steeled in war. Secondly, the core
Iranian claim of Iraqi responsibility for invading Iran in 1980 is undoubtedly just; the failure
of the international community, then and now, to recognize this has clearly contributed to
prolonging the war.
Much of the discussion over current diplomatic and naval activities surrounding the Gulf war
has avoided this central issue, thus raising pertinent doubts about the evenhanded character
of this intervention. The US military deployment in Lebanon in 1982-84 was a classic
example of a peace-keeping mission that was one-sided and catastrophic. The prospects
are that the US intervention in the Gulf will have a similar outcome. On the other hand, if
Western and Soviet navies can enforce an end to the tanker war -- that is, protect Iranian
as well as Arab shipping -- then it will serve a positive function and provide one element of a
comprehensive settlement. If it mainly protects Iraq and allows attacks on Iran to continue,
it will only stoke the war further.

Three broad lessons would seem to follow from the history of the post-war Middle East and
the role it has played in East-West relations. The first is that the link between social
upheaval in the region and the great power contest has been an indirect one. Such
developments as the Iranian revolution or the Palestinian resistance have caused great
anxiety in the West, and provided some opportunities to the USSR, but overall the Soviet
bloc has been remarkably unsuccessful in taking advantage of the turmoil there.
Secondly, the most distinctive feature of the Middle East compared to other regions of the
Third World is the ferocity of the interstate conflicts. These have little to do with East-West
rivalry, even if they do, over time, become embroiled with it. The conflicts between Israel
and the Arabs, Iraq and Iran, Libya and Chad, and on the margin, Ethiopia and Somalia,
involve issues and causes of a local and regional character.
Thirdly, while some of the crises of the region have sharpened East-West conflict (Iran in
1946, Suez in 1956, the October War of 1973, the Ethiopian-Somali War in 1977, the Gulf
War in 1987), only Afghanistan has acquired the status in US-Soviet relations of the wars of
Korea, Vietnam, Angola or Central America. The two conflicts that did come to play a major
role in East-West relations (Iran in 1946, and Afghanistan since 1978) have done so
because, as in these other areas of the Third World, indigenous revolutionary forces have
been involved. The Iran-Iraq War has not, to date, assumed such a dimension, but were the
regime in Iran to begin to disintegrate, with attendant competitive interventions by the US
and the USSR, then Iran could become again a major focus of East-West conflict.
A final issue raised by the December 1987 summit, and by diplomatic activities before and
since, is how far a degree of cooperation by the US and the USSR over Third World issues is
desirable. It is easy to see all such understandings as some form of collusion or
condominium. But there can be situations in which some common position can serve
positive functions: first by delinking Third World conflicts from East-West rivalry and
accepting that they have local causes, and secondly by providing guarantees and
negotiating contexts for local states and forces to reach a settlement. In some cases, it
must be said, a degree of joint pressure from Washington and Moscow might not come
[1] This Western hierarchy of interests is not the same for the Soviet Union. As Michael
MccGwire shows in his article in this issue, Moscows quest for strategic influence in the
Middle East derives mainly from the regions proximity to the Soviet southern border and its
potential as a staging ground for hostile military buildup. - Eds.