The latter half of the 1970s witnessed a sustained and geographically diverse series of social upheavals in the Third World which, taken together, constituted a lessening of Western control in the developing areas. In Africa, the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 was followed by a series of changes in the remaining embattled colonies attendant upon the revolution in Portugal: in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau (1975) and, as a consequence of the independence of Mozambique, in Zimbabwe (1980). The Southwest Asian region was transformed by the revolutions in Afghanistan (1978) and Iran (1979). In Central America there was a triumphant revolution in Nicaragua (1979), and continuing unrest in El Salvador and Guatemala. The psychological impact of these changes served to draw attention to a defeat which had temporarily been repressed in the US consciousness but which had continued to exert its subliminal force — the loss of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1975). Had the final defeat in Indochina been an isolated event, it might have remained repressed, unmourned and without future policy implications; but the combination of upheavals elsewhere combined to produce what seemed to be an ominous “winning streak” of Third World revolutions to which sooner or later the United States would be forced to respond.

The Persian Gulf became a particularly apt place to respond to this wave of revolutions for several interrelated reasons. First, it was geographically near to some of the most important social upheavals of the period — Ethiopia, Iran and Afghanistan. Ethiopia was the site of a large scale and successful Cuban intervention, in support of the Ethiopian government. Iran was the site of the most humiliating individual incident in the whole process of Third World revolutions — the hostage affair. Afghanistan was the site of a large scale Soviet military intervention. But these events combined with a second important factor, namely the fragility of the West’s remaining allies in that area and particularly the vital state of Saudi Arabia. All of the West’s allies around the Gulf were monarchies, ruling without the consent of their people and with enormous corruption and inequality of wealth. The events of Iran showed that apparently secure regimes could be rapidly overthrown once a popular movement started to move.

This frailty was further amplified by the special importance of the Gulf in US global strategy. Concern about the Persian Gulf increased greatly during the 1970s as the United States became a significant importer of oil for the first time. The extent of this dependence should not be exaggerated: Only 15 percent of US oil comes from the Gulf, as compared to 60 percent of Europe’s and 90 percent of Japan’s. But the prosperity of the US economy is affected by the greater dependence of the other industrialized economies upon Gulf oil. And the American oil companies who for decades have controlled the sale of Gulf crude to Europe and Japan would be direly affected.

There has also been the growth of a more general sense in the advanced industrialized countries that they are dependent on the Third World for vital mineral resources: While there is considerable debate on how true this dependence really is, and how far it is a misinformed alarmism, no one can deny the importance of this new mood of raw material vulnerability. The result of both trends has been a psychological response far in excess of whatever real material reliance has arisen, and a consequent emphasis upon the strategic vulnerability of the United States. The Gulf fits this picture ideally: It produces the most vital of all these raw materials, and it is a long way away.

As the 1970s proceeded, it is possible to detect a steadily growing strategic concentration on the Gulf. US anxiety about the old focus of Soviet influence, Egypt, declined as Cairo’s relations with Moscow worsened, while the winding down of the Indochina wars led to a gradual shift in Asian strategic perspective westward that was already noticeable in 1973. [1] By the mid-1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia had become the principal customers for US arms, and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was meeting regularly with the Shah to coordinate joint security measures in the Gulf area.

A Soviet Blueprint?

The turning point came in 1978. The Soviet and Cuban effort to assist Ethiopia in repulsing the Somali invasion became public knowledge in January; then followed the communist coup in Afghanistan in April; and by September the revolutionary movement in Iran had gathered full force. Before the end of the year Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had coined the phrase “arc of crisis” to denote the range of countries “along the shores of the Indian Ocean, with fragile social and political structures in a region of vital importance to us threatened with fragmentation. The resulting political chaos could well be filled by elements hostile to our values and sympathetic to our adversaries.” [2]

During the course of 1978 the focus of world tension shifted uneasily between the Southwest Asian and African contexts. Cuba certainly had sent forces to Angola, but, as Congressional hearings were to show, the dispatch of Cuban forces was to protect the government of the newly independent state against attacks in which both the CIA and South Africa had already become deeply implicated. Cuban involvement in invasions of Shaba, the mineral-rich province of Zaire, greatly emphasized in the US press at the time, turned out to be unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, presented through the prism of a decomposing Third World, Angola and Shaba appeared to confirm the view that a revolutionary wave, impelled by Moscow, was sweeping through Asia and Africa. [3]

One of the most cogent expressions of this strategic alarm came in a series of statements by former Secretary of State Kissinger. In December 1978, Kissinger talked of what he called “the geopolitical decline from Vietnam through Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen and Afghanistan” which had, he said, “demoralized friends and emboldened enemies.” In testimony before the House of Representatives on the SALT II Treaty, Kissinger talked about “an unprecedented Soviet assault on the international equilibrium” and listed what he saw as the instances of this assault. “They are not, to be sure, all controlled by Moscow; but someone who has started a rockslide cannot avoid responsibility by claiming that the rock he threw was not the one that ultimately killed bystanders. These tactics, reinforced by a Soviet military build-up threatening the strategic, theater and conventional balances, are incompatible with any notion of detente or coexistence.” [4]

In January 1979 the Iranian revolution reached its climax. A month later fighting broke out along the border between North and South Yemen and the Carter administration rushed $380 million worth of military equipment to what was seen as the current front line against communist “expansionism.” [5] US-Iranian relations reached a new low when the US Embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979. A few days later, on November 20, Islamic rebels seized the Holy Mosque in Mecca, thereby throwing the stability of Saudi Arabia into question. On December 24, Soviet forces entered Afghanistan in large numbers. In his State of the Union message on January 23, 1980, President Jimmy Carter stated: “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Much of the policy of the present Republican administration is molded by what its decision makers assume to be the lessons of the late 1970s and specifically by what are presented as the consequences of Soviet “expansion” in Southwest Asia. The upheavals in this region are, furthermore, by no means over; the gales of revolution and counter-revolution have not spent themselves. Afghanistan is still in the grip of civil war. The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula remain fragile. There is no peace in the Horn of Africa. Most important of all, Iran is in turmoil, with many pressures upon it from without and within: it is possible that it will go through a period of civil war at some point in the 1980s, and probable that it will become a focus of international tension again. Most analysis of Soviet policy in this region assumes certain global premises and uses the Middle East to illustrate them. Soviet policy is assumed to be expansionist and aggressive, and cases are adduced from the Arab world or Afghanistan to prove this. Often, Soviet actions are explained by reference to a supposed blueprint for world domination.

This deductive approach prejudges the evidence of what the Soviets have actually done in these countries, and it leaves open the question of how far Soviet policy is one that can be seen as inimical to the West. Soviet policy is not wholly disinterested, nor is it abstentionist: where opportunities for advancing Soviet interests arise these may be taken. But terms such as “targets” of Soviet policy, “assault” upon the international order, or “encirclement” of the Gulf present a dangerously misleading and schematic view of what Soviet policy is about.

Frontiers and Nationalities

The Middle East, seen as that area stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan and including the whole of the Arab world, occupies a particular place in the Soviet view of the world. The Middle East borders the Soviet Union, and is indeed the only place, apart from the Finnish and Norwegian borders, where the USSR physically adjoins onto the non-communist world. Viewed from the Kremlin, the USSR has a belt of Warsaw Pact allies on the west, and China — hostile but under a considerable degree of central control — on the east. In between lies a central belt where no such security exists: a line running over three thousand miles along the Black Sea, the Turkish and Iranian frontiers, and then across the Afghan plains to the knot of the Pamirs, a cartographer’s conceit constructed by British officials in the nineteenth century, where the USSR, China, and Afghanistan all meet. This “southern tier” is a line of countries whose international and internal orientations are of prime concern to the Soviets, just as the politics of the Caribbean and Central American countries are to the United States. The Arab states, with which Moscow has enjoyed closer relations over the past two decades, are strategically of secondary importance to this “southern tier.”

The Middle East as a whole is by far the most volatile and exposed of the three major land flanks that the USSR faces, and it is the one where the West has been most active in consolidating its own positions, ever since the Truman (1947) and Eisenhower (1957) Doctrines. In both previous world wars this region was the site of Russian military campaigns: there can be little doubt that this would be so in the event of a third global conflagration. The West sees this region as at the moment vital to its interests because of oil, but for the Soviets this is geographical reality that they must confront forever.

The potential threat to the Soviet regime posed by the minorities of Central Asia has received considerable media attention in recent years. Of the 262 million Soviet population in the 1979 census, Russians make up half and Slavs two-thirds of the total. But birth rates in the non-Slav republics are much higher. The population growth rate for the European USSR in the 1970-1979 period was 9 percent compared to Tajikistan 31 percent, Uzbekistan 30 percent, Armenia 22 percent. If these trends continue, then at some point in the next century these non-Slav minorities will form a majority of the USSR’s population. This development naturally raises the possibility of a revival of nationalistic and Islamic sentiment among these peoples, influenced by trends across the border in the Middle East.

Details on opposition activity are scarce, but there are signs of a new militancy among the Muslims of Central Asia. The underground Sufi religious sects, the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri, with contacts in Turkey and Iran, are said to maintain some contacts with co-believers across the Secretary of Defense Weinberger at a US base in Germany border. The report to the Twenty-Sixth Congress of the CPSU from Turkmenistan reported on unspecified opposition by local mullahs. [6] Although the number of mosques is only around two hundred (compared with eight thousand at the end of the war) the majority of the population retains some religious belief, as evidenced by observation of festivals, endogenous marriage, and a refusal to use abortion (the most common form of Soviet birth control). However, the coherence of this phenomenon should not be exaggerated. Not all of these minorities are Muslims, and even within the Muslim community there are sharp rivalries. The very numerical extent of the minority groups (more than 90) makes it much more difficult for them to pose a threat to the Slavs at the top. [7] The growth of distinct national entities since 1917 has also eroded the grounds for a single pan-Islamic sentiment.

For many of these minorities the cultural rights, however limited, and standard of living are higher on the Soviet than on the Middle Eastern side of the border. The death rate in Soviet Turkmenistan in the mid-1970s was 7.2 per thousand, the number of doctors 2.7 per thousand and the number of hospital beds 10.2 per thousand. In Afghanistan the average figures were 23.8 per thousand, 0.2 per thousand and 7.5 per thousand. [8] Literacy in Soviet Tajikistan, where the population speaks a dialect of Persian, has gone from 2 percent to 99 percent under Soviet rule. Literacy in Iran is 30 percent, and in Afghanistan it is 10 percent. The higher levels of education in the Soviet areas are important not just in social welfare terms but also in undermining the appeals of a populist Islam.

In Soviet Central Asia, the local populations have tried to gain influence within state and party and thereby to turn them to their advantage — sometimes, if the official reports are anything to go by, in rather corrupt ways. Members of the Central Asian minorities may gain influence at a future date within the USSR without this necessarily leading to a greater autonomy or a centrifugal pattern in the provinces. No one can predict the future trends among the nationalities in the USSR; but neither available evidence nor analysis of the objective situation suggest that concern about an opposition in the Muslim areas is a major factor in Soviet calculations.

Another, countervailing, nationality factor that has implications for the Middle East is the presence within the USSR of a Jewish minority whose militancy reflects the persistence of anti-Semitic sentiment in wide sections of Soviet society. Through its international contacts, the Soviet Jewish community has made the emigration issue a domestic US concern and thus, despite the frequently hostile character of the Soviet society around them, the Jews constitute a calculation in Soviet policy on the Middle East. Although the decision to allow Jewish emigration has cost the Soviet Union some legitimacy in Arab eyes, it was taken largely in response to the pressure from Congress. Since 1974, a considerable flow of Jewish emigration has come from the Soviet Union — around 260,000 exit visas were granted between 1974 and 1980.

Trade and Aid

The scale of the Soviet commitment to the Middle East, in economic and military terms, has outstripped that to any other part of the non-communist world. The economic commitment has resulted from geographical proximity and the availability of energy supplies, and has focused on Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. The military commitment has resulted from the Arab-Israeli dispute and has focused on the confrontation states (Egypt, Syria).

The Middle East states represent a significant proportion of overall Soviet involvement in the Third World. Less than ten percent of Soviet imports come from non-communist Third World countries, and the Soviet share of Third World exports, including oil, was 2.2 percent in 1976, compared with 28.5 percent for the EEC and 20.6 percent for the US. But well over half of this Soviet trade and aid policy is tied to the Middle Eastern area. Of the ten major non-communist recipients of Soviet economic aid in the 1954-1976 period, seven were in the Middle East: Turkey, Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of the ten Third World countries with the most trade with the USSR in 1976, six were in the Middle East: Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan. [9] Estimates of Soviet military exports indicate that up to two thirds of all post-war supplies to non-communist countries have gone to Middle East countries; in the 1971-1976 period 60 percent went to just three countries: Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The Soviet military presence in Egypt in the early 1970s was the largest ever outside the communist world (i.e., prior to Afghanistan), with around 25,000 personnel, berthing rights in Alexandria, and the use of six airfields. Nine out of 21 Arab League states are, or have recently been, reliant on the USSR for the bulk of their military supplies. [10]

Even the decline of arms transfers to Egypt has failed to break the pattern. In 1977 and 1978 Soviet arms supplies to the Third World accounted for around 25 percent of the world total, a higher percentage than was previously the case, and the Middle East and North African countries figured prominently in this trade. Of total sales in 1977-1978, Ethiopia accounted for about 30 percent of the total; four longer-term customers — Libya, Algeria, Syria and India — accounted for another 55 percent; and among the 22 other countries acquiring Soviet weapons were South Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. [11]

Such a large commitment has provided a testing ground for Soviet equipment (especially in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war) and has given the opportunity for some major Soviet airlifts (Egypt in 1973, Ethiopia in 1977). But it has also involved a heavy commitment of Soviet prestige in dealings with countries which it has not been able to control. In Ethiopia the officer corps has not been changed since the days of the emperor. In Iraq the ruling Baath Party has been executing and imprisioning Iraqi communists. In Afghanistan the Soviets have had to take drastic and risky measures to protect their previously established position.

The provision of arms and economic aid has not proven to be any guarantee of lasting political influence. Soviet aid focuses on state-to-state, bilateral projects, usually in the heavy industrial sector. For example, nearly 80 percent of Soviet credits to Egypt were for hydroelectric and heavy industrial projects. These leave the door open for Western domination of many other economic sectors, ones that have greater popular impact. Even those countries such as Iraq that have nationalized considerable sectors of their own industry and imposed state control of foreign trade, and which have signed friendship treaties with the Soviet Union, continue to do most of their trading with capitalist countries.

Oil and Soviet Policy

The Soviet Union is the largest oil producer in the world, and accounts for around one fifth of total world output; with net output in 1979 at 11.87 million barrels a day — outstripping consumption at 8.93 million barrels a day — it remains a net exporter. [12] But because of geographical factors it has benefited the Soviet Union to import quantities of oil (from Iraq) and of gas (from Iran and Afghanistan), and thus to export more of its own production to European markets. The revolution in Iran not only stopped work on a major new gas pipeline, IGAT-II, from southern Iran to the USSR, but also cut off gas supplies already flowing from Iran to large areas of the Caucasus during the winter of 1978-1979, thereby causing serious hardship in that region. However, the effects of Middle East price rises have, overall, been beneficial to the Soviet Union.

The USSR’s manufactured goods are not of sufficient quality to compete on the world market, and it has had to rely on raw materials to make up its hard currency income. Soviet earnings from the sale of energy to Western Europe are especially important. At $6.7 billion in 1977 they made up half of all its hard currency earnings. The USSR earns more from oil exports than do some OPEC states. It has lowered the percentage of Comecon oil which it provides (65 percent in 1980), and has steadily raised prices so that by 1980 it was more or less half the OPEC rate, compared to a fraction thereof in 1975.

Compared to the majority of Western countries the USSR is in a rather favorable energy situation. Its known reserves, at 71 billion barrels, made up 11 percent of the world total, and equal around seventeen times 1978 consumption. According to the OECD, it has an estimated 39 percent of all the world’s gas reserves. The Soviets claim — probably exaggeratedly, but indicative of a major reserve — to have 57 percent of the world’s coal; they do account for 20 percent of world output. Moreover, they recently carried out a massive conservation campaign, and are building the equivalent of the Alaska pipeline every four to five weeks in order to get gas and oil out of Siberia. Unrestrained by environmentalist pressures, they are building up a nuclear energy industry that is scheduled to provide 33 percent of Comecon electricity by 1990.

Public discussion of the oil issue tends to coincide with a modish tendency in the West to stress the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. Now it is true that the Soviet economy is inefficiently managed and has failed to realize anything like its full potential. It is also true that it faces problems of production and productivity in industry as well as agriculture, and that living standards are below those to which many aspire. But nobody in the Soviet Union is starving, or sleeping on the streets. Certain social services, such as public health (29.7 doctors per 1,000 population compared to 16.5 in North America), are in fact better for the mass of the population than those in North America. The Soviet economy is a long way from catastrophe and indeed it continues to expand at a sluggish rate at a time when the West has been in recession. Soviet GNP rose by 3.1 percent per year in the 1976-1979 period, and indications are that this kind of growth will continue. As Jerry Hough of the Brookings Institution has written: “In the broad historical perspective, the Soviet economy has performed rather well, especially given its relative lack of foreign investment and the large proportion of its resources devoted to military purposes…. Its rate of economic growth, even in the ‘slowdown’ of the 1970s, has been substantial, well above that of the United States. In the 35 years since the end of World War II, the consumer has enjoyed a steadily rising standard of living.” [13]

All in all, the economic condition of the Soviet Union is not so desperate as to force it to engage in rash gambles in the countries lying to its south. With its oil and gas, this region has been and will remain of importance to the Soviet economy, but this importance will more likely be mediated via normal commercial dealings rather than through the advance of the Red Army. [14]

Soviet Setbacks

At the start of the 1980s, Soviet influence in the Middle East appears to be at a lower point than at any time since 1955. Egypt has broken all ties with the USSR and has repudiated its $7 billion debt to Moscow. Sadat has repeatedly gone out of his way to insult the Soviets. Iraq has been executing communists and is openly supplying Somalia and Eritrea with help against Soviet-supported Ethiopia. It has denounced the Soviet role in Afghanistan. Iraq exports about $500 million worth of oil to the Soviet Union and imports about $70 million worth of goods from the USSR: a striking illustration of the asymmetry of military and economic links established by the USSR with Third World countries. Relations with Iraq worsened further after the Iranian revolution, when Moscow tried to establish a working relationship with Khomeini’s regime, and when, after Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980, the USSR remained neutral.

In the central Arab regions, the USSR has maintained only two allies, Syria and Libya. At the start of the 1980s, there appeared to be some consolidation of relations with each. Syria signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow in 1980, and appeared to have reached an accommodation which papered over their earlier disagreement over Syria’s 1976 intervention in Lebanon. Libya, meanwhile, had come a long way since the early years of Qaddafi’s regime, when the Tripoli press declared in red banner headlines that Russia was an “imperialist” country. Western sources spoke of up to $12 billion in Soviet arms sales to Libya, and hundreds of Soviet military technicians were reported in Libya, including some helping with advanced missiles. [15] Both these liaisons seemed to confirm an alarmist view of Soviet strategic intentions: Syria was increasingly in control of Lebanon, and remained the only front-line Arab state implacably hostile to Israel. Libya’s pro-Soviet orientation undermined the southern flank of NATO, and constituted a challenge to Sadat’s Egypt. Moreover, Libyan involvement in activities which it is impossible not to categorize as “terrorist” gave right-wing US critics their opportunity to argue that Moscow was involved in orchestrating international terrorist activities through its “surrogates.”

Taken together, these two alliances were no substitute for the one the Soviets had lost with Egypt. In both cases, moreover, the Soviet commitment was in part designed to check the tendency of both regimes toward reckless ventures: a Syrian miscalculation vis-à-vis Israel, or a Libyan one vis-à-vis Egypt could easily lead to disaster. Indeed, we cannot but suspect that one of the prime functions of the the Soviet technicians in Libya is to prevent the Libyans from using the missiles they possess — just as Soviet personnel in Egypt in the late 1960s had a similar role.

Neither Syrian President Asad, nor Libyan President Qaddafi, are communists: Indeed, both are Arab nationalists, suspicious of communism, and capable of imprisoning or assassinating those left-wing opponents they feel are a threat. Their foreign policy initiatives are consistently taken for reasons of their own state interests, and not at the behest of Moscow. Time and again, divergences have arisen: in Syria’s case over Lebanon, and in Libya’s over Qaddafi’s opposition to the Soviet role in Afghanistan and over the Libyan refusal to accept the legitimacy of an Israeli state.

The Soviets and the Palestine Question

For the Arabs, the central issue in Middle Eastern politics remains the Arab-Israeli dispute. Here the Soviet Union has lost the influence it once had over Egypt and has been excluded from the negotiation process. Saudi domination of the rejectionist camp restricts the USSR to the sidelines as far as Sadat’s opponents are concerned. Several factors relate to the Soviet role in the Palestine question. First, the Soviets do not oppose the existence of an Israeli state. They were among the first to recognize the state of Israel, and, although they broke diplomatic relations in 1967, they have never (in contrast to the Chinese) denied Israel’s right to exist. They argue the only viable solution to be one that allows for the existence of both a Palestinian state and of Israel. They base their policy on UN Resolution 242 of 1967, and insist that Israel return to its 1967 boundaries. Throughout their relations with Arab states, they have never wavered on this point: they have, at the same time, never persuaded any Arab state to agree with them.

Second, Soviet arms supplies to Egypt have never been such as to give the Arab states overall military superiority. They have been sufficient to give them the ability to resist Israeli attacks (in 1955, and again after 1967) or to launch a limited war (in 1973), the purpose of which was to reach a negotiated settlement. In the 1973 war, the Soviets seem to have suspected that something was afoot, and they tried, obliquely, to warn the Americans of this. There is no evidence that they planned or instigated the war, and their resupply and negotiation policies during it were designed to maintain the Arab position in the event of a ceasefire. Nor is there evidence that they seriously considered sending troops to the Middle East during this war (the supposed reason for Nixon’s October 25 nuclear alert). [16] Soviet arms policy has always been governed by political considerations and correspondingly restricted: the Soviets often quarreled with the Egyptians over arms supplies, and have done so more recently with Syria. They have never acceded to Arab requests for nuclear weapons, despite the fact that Israel is known to have an almost immediate nuclear capacity.

Third, Soviet support for the Palestinians has been qualified and was slow to develop. The USSR did not endorse the PLO when it was founded in 1964, unlike the Chinese. The first time Arafat visited Moscow he did so as part of Nasser’s delegation in 1968; he had to hide inside the plane until the official ceremonies on the tarmac were over. Arafat’s first two visits in his own right (February 1970, September 1971) were as a guest of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Organization, and he did not receive a state welcome from the USSR until July 1972. In the late 1960s, the dominant mood among Palestinians was extremely anti-Soviet; the Soviets were seen as having betrayed the Arab cause and as refusing to assist the Palestinian movement. Nevertheless, while the Soviet press has always indicated official Soviet disapproval of terrorist actions, relations with the PLO have improved. Moscow has become a champion of a Palestinian state and a major arms supplier to the Palestinian movement. The Soviets have also encouraged a rapprochement between the PLO and the pro-Soviet communist party inside Israel, Rakah. But they have continued to stress the need for Palestinian unity, and publicly to diverge from the Palestinians on the central issue of Israel’s right to exist. They still do not accept the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Even those sections of the PLO who support the establishment of a separate Palestinian state tend to see it as an intermediate step towards a final single entity, whereas the USSR, basing itself on its 1948 position, envisages the two-state solution as permanent.

Fourth, Soviet opposition to Camp David is based on opposition to step-by-step solutions, which they believe cannot work in the end. They say that Sadat’s failures to achieve a comprehensive solution will, by provoking strong reactions, make it more difficult to reach a full agreement on the Palestinian question. They believe that any solution negotiated by outside powers should be brought about bilaterally, by joint US-Soviet negotiation. During the 1967 and 1973 wars, for example, they worked with Western diplomats to arrange for ceasefires. They were particularly enraged when the November 1977 initiatives by Sadat and the US came within weeks of an important joint US-Soviet declaration that they hoped would lead to a new bilateral initiative. Part of the Soviet interpretation of detente is that mediation of this kind must be carried out through joint initiatives. This is necessary, they argue, to avoid one side using mediation for partisan purposes. Kissinger made eminently clear that one of the aims of his diplomacy was precisely to seal the eviction of the Soviet Union from the Middle East. Compare this with cases where the Soviets have attempted mediation. Their negotiation between India and Pakistan, the Tashkent summit of 1966, was not carried out in such a way as to dislodge the US from its client in the dispute (Pakistan). And when the Soviets tried to mediate between Ethiopia and Somalia in the spring of 1977, this cost them the friendship of a state that had previously been allied with them (Somalia). In this latter case Somalia’s intransigence was encouraged by the Carter administration.

Underlying these positions is an important difference in emphasis between the Soviet and Arab views of this question: While for the Arabs the Palestine issue is, at least officially, the central question in contemporary Middle Eastern politics, the Soviets see the balance of East-West relations and their own security as more important. Indeed, below the surface of Soviet commentary upon this question, it is possible to detect a note of irritation and even exasperation at the intransigent tone which the Arab states and the Palestinians have adopted. Soviet thinking on the Palestine question has certainly shifted somewhat since 1948, and now acknowledges the justice of the Palestinian cause itself, but the framework remains a broader one, of ensuring a just and lasting settlement of a dispute that could explode into a major world conflict, and in a region near the borders of the USSR itself.

Local Responses

For the Arab and Iranian lefts, Soviet policy in the Middle East has not been active enough. Moscow has desisted from support of revolutionary movements in the region in order to consolidate relations with nationalist governments and to appease the imperialist countries. This critique began with the decision by Lenin and his associates to work with the nationalist governments of Turkey and Iran in 1921. It was greatly strengthened by Soviet support for military regimes in the 1950s and 1960s at the expense of local communists. Even where no Soviet acceptance of the established power existed, Moscow has shown itself hesitant about supporting guerrilla movements — the Algerian FLN, the PLO, the Omani guerrillas and now the Polisario Front of the Western Sahara. In the late 1960s especially, Soviet “revisionism” was seen as hostility to guerrilla struggle. Whereas Soviet military and economic aid is seen in Western eyes as being used to guarantee political influence, the left critique argues that this aid has been too little and too exploitative.

The Islamic critique may at first sight appear to be less substantive than that of the Arab left, but is probably the one that most people in the Middle East actually believe — itself a political fact of some importance. This Islamic view, long propounded by the Saudis and now echoed in Iran, charges that the Soviet Union has withheld support for the “Arab” cause, and that this restraint has prevented the Arabs from clinching victory over Israel. It is a stock in trade of Sadat’s rhetoric — as it once was of Qaddafi’s. This critique of Soviet policy goes on to argue that the USSR has in fact been one of the forces sustaining Israel, a claim that draws on some potent, if somewhat veiled, racist themes within the Islamic worldview itself. The Arab states have not forgotten the important support given to the nascent state of Israel by Stalin in 1948; nor the fact that most of those who control Israel to this day were born in Eastern Europe (“the Pole Begin”); nor that since 1967 the USSR has allowed Jews to emigrate to Israel, given that many of the Jews involved have militarily usable skills and are of military service age.

The core argument of the Islamic right is simply that communism and Zionism are two heads of the same beast. The late King Faysal called on his people “to oppose all doctrines founded by the Zionists — the corrupt doctrines, the atheist communist doctrines which seek to deny the existence of God and to deviate from faith and from our Islamic religion.” In a later interview, Feisal’s successor, King Khalid, tells us: “We regard Zionism, communism and colonialism as a trinity allied against Arab and Islamic rights and aspirations. Our policy is based on that understanding, and it is natural for us to be always subjected to biased and poisonous campaigns at the hand of that very trinity.” [17] The most base clichés of European fascism, linking communism and Jewry, can be found in the propaganda of this militant, and it must be emphasized, very widespread Islamic propaganda. In Khomeini’s Iran, Islamic rhetoric lashes out equally at left and right — the Jews in Palestine, the Ethiopian army in Eritrea, the revolutionary regime in Afghanistan. From a supposedly more left-wing stance, the Iraqi Baath Party has taken to discrediting its rival Communist Party by publicizing the latter’s links to the “Zionist” Communist Party of Israel.

A Disastrous Record

The difficulties that the West has encountered in regard to the Arab world have not correlated with a commensurate rise in Soviet influence. Soviet expectations that nationalist and thereby anti-imperialist regimes would become reliable allies of theirs and potential converts to socialism have proven unfounded. In his encounters with Arab leaders, Nikita Khrushchev used to urge them to lay less stress on the supposed bond of Arab brotherhood and more on class factors underlying the politics of the Middle East: “Arab nationalism is not the zenith of happiness,” he once told a visiting Egyptian delegation led by Anwar al-Sadat. During a visit to Egypt in 1964, Khrushchev went even further in his attack upon the classless character of Arab unity slogans, by asking Egyptian trade unionists what they had in common with the emir of Kuwait: “There is some little ruler sitting there, an Arab, of course, a Muslim. He is giving bribes. He lives the life of the rich, but he is trading in the wealth of his people. He never had any conscience and he will never have any. Will you come to terms with him on unification? It is easier to eat three puds of salt than to reach an agreement with him, although you are both Arabs and Muslims.” [18] In more delicate tones, Soviet writers on the non-capitalist road have tried to stress the progressive class character behind Arab nationalism which, under proper guidance, could enable the Arab world to make a transition to socialism. But the turn of events has forced the Soviets to reconsider their theories of the non-capitalist road and to look more skeptically at apparently radical nationalist regimes.

The decline in Soviet influence within the Arab world has in some measure been offset by increased influence in some non-Arab states — Ethiopia, Afghanistan — and by a certain consolidation in the most peripheral of Arab states, South Yemen. This process has underlain the rise of the “arc of crisis” alarms. In the Arab world, however, the Soviet record has been a negative and in many ways a disastrous one. Yet, despite its weak hold on events, the Soviet Union now finds itself faced with a new American buildup in the Arab world precisely on the grounds that Soviet policy is supposed to be threatening the West’s vital interests there.

The logic of much of the “arc” discussion is unsound: It involves a “deductivist” approach masquerading as an “inductivist” one, i.e., it pretends to prove its general case by using a set of specific examples. But what it is really doing is to interpret these examples in the light of an already accepted and unstated general theory, e.g., Soviet advances in South Yemen “prove” that the USSR is an expansionist power trying to throttle the West’s oil supplies. Yet, if one looks a little closer, it turns out that the events in South Yemen have been explicated on the basis of prior assumptions about what Soviet policy is. In Iran, Afghanistan, South Yemen and Ethiopia — the four countries usually singled out as cases of Soviet instigation that justify a stronger Western response — a reconstruction of the record allows a rather different picture to emerge, one that contrasts not just with the simplistic alarmism of the hard-liners, but also with the somewhat more subtle perspective of a Kissinger.

In each of the four countries concerned, the fundamental changes were primarily due to the evolution of identifiable internal conflicts. The Soviet Union played no instigatory role in these evolutions. The similarity of the four countries is not due to their common fate as victims of Soviet designs, but rather from the fact that in each, autonomous revolutionary processes have matured in such a way that the interests of the United States have been reduced.

Where there was an external catalyst, it came from the West or its allies. In two of these states, Iran and Ethiopia, popular explosions had the ferocity they did partly because of long years of repression, for which the United States bears much responsibility. Furthermore, US interference, directly or via US junior allies, has remained a factor in the radicalization of each of the four countries concerned.

The Soviet Union certainly has taken advantage of these developments and plays an increasingly visible role, where the situation allows. But this is quite different from claiming that the Soviet Union has stage-managed events, or that it is somehow behaving as an “imperialist” power. It also overstates the degree of current Soviet control over these countries and the benefit that Moscow derives from its alliances with them. [19]

The Soviet Union has faced considerable difficulties in managing its policy in these countries. It no more controls the internal politics of Ethiopia than it did those of Egypt under Nasser or those of Baathist Iraq. While concerned about the general trends of South Yemeni politics, it is not able to dictate or even substantially determine policy in that country in the way, for example, that it certainly did in Eastern European countries in the late 1940s and 1950s. In Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was drawn deeper into the conflict by the errors of its local ally, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, into support for the April 1978 coup, into backing for the provocative policies of the Taraki and Amin regimes, and then into a full-scale military presence directed at saving the PDPA regime from extinction. However lamentable, the Afghan saga does not indicate a high level of Soviet political control there. In Iran, the Soviet Union has given verbal support to the revolutionary regime. Yet it backed the revolution belatedly, and has expressed stifled alarm both at the way the Khomeini regime has handled some of its internal policies and at the strategic implications of the protracted conflict between Iran and the United States over the hostages.

It is doubtful that the Soviet Union has gained anything from these developments in economic terms. The one area where the Soviets have gained some ground is the military. There is some reason to believe that their negative experiences with the “non-capitalist road” countries over the 1960s and 1970s have led them to lay less stress on political and economic coordination with these countries and to focus on the narrower issue of military access. Their naval facilities in South Yemen are far less than Western propaganda would have us believe, but the Soviets are able to use Aden harbor to service their Indian Ocean ships, and to change crews. [20] In Ethiopia, the Soviet Union has acquired an ally that could in the future play a major role in African affairs, with the largest battle-experienced black army on the continent. Afghanistan has given the Soviet army its first combat experience since World War II. It has also provided the Soviets with front lines further south than they would otherwise have had. The advantage of this should not be overstated, however. Soviet capacity to influence Iran or seize the Gulf is predominantly affected by the USSR’s proximity to Iran itself, and has been only marginally enhanced by the Afghan intervention, as a glance at the map will show.

The overall international balance sheet on the Afghan intervention has certainly been negative. The Soviet action there came after a substantial deterioration in East-West relations, for which the United States was at least partially responsible. [21] It is probable, though it cannot be proved, that the Soviets were also alarmed by what they saw as a possible growth in Chinese influence along their southern flanks. Nonetheless, the direct intervention by Soviet troops in conditions where it could not be described as a simple case of responding to external aggression has seriously worsened the international and regional climates. It has given a strong encouragement to anti-communist sentiment in the Islamic world, at a time of growing Islamic militancy, and provided the West with the perfect issue upon which to orchestrate an international campaign against the USSR. The decision to enter Afghanistan was taken, it seems, for reasons relating to the situation in that country itself. It was taken despite the international consequences, and irrespective of political or military gains and losses. Thus, if it is false to argue that the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan because of marginal strategic benefits, it must also be false to expect them to leave in order to improve the international climate, unless the Kabul government itself is strong enough to cope with the rural opposition that remains.

An Alternative Critique

Soviet policy has certainly played its part, therefore, in worsening the international climate that produced the new Cold War. Yet beyond these immediate considerations, there remain some more general aspects of Soviet policy about which doubts can be raised. These doubts arise not from the impact of Soviet policy on East-West relations, but from its impact on the political conditions experienced by the peoples of the region themselves.

The Soviet Union has not just given general support to the regimes it favors, but has done so in such a way as to condone or support some of their more repressive characteristics. In so doing it is reproducing in the Third World its anti-democratic character at home. The Soviet model of the party, the monolithic structure of the press, the major role of security forces — all of these are found to a greater or lesser degree in the countries that model themselves upon or which are politically allied with the USSR. There is no evidence of Soviet responsibility for the more brutal policies of some of their allies — the “Red Terror” in Ethiopia, the mass executions of Hafizullah Amin — but the general structures of party and security forces have been shaped by Soviet models and advisers.

Another negative factor in Moscow’s political influence is the export of the official Soviet position on nationalities. Orthodox Soviet theory stresses that socialism guarantees freedom to the working class while in practice denying this; similarly, it guarantees the right to self-determination by ethnic minorities, including the right of secession, while in practice permitting only formal autonomy and a measure of cultural diversity. [22] This has been the pattern inside the USSR, and has been reproduced in Soviet policy toward a number of Third World countries where the nationalities issue has come up: in Nigeria, where the USSR backed the suppression of Biafra in the 1960s; in Iraq in 1972-1975, where it supported the suppression of the Kurds; and, most recently, in Ethiopia, where Moscow has continued Washington’s policy of opposition to any secession. This has its root in a much deeper pattern of Soviet policy towards the nationalities question, stretching back through Kurdistan and Biafra to Bolshevik policy toward Georgia and the Ukraine after 1917.

This record indicts not just the Soviet political system but also the Soviet model of the “non-capitalist” road, where the claims about new “democratic” political institutions are rather hollow. In many cases, these “non-capitalist” states are merely preparing the ground for a more overt capitalism later on (e.g., the case of Egypt). In others, even where a state sector predominates in the economy and some sort of economic socialist system may be said to be possible in the future, the political institutions are devoid of any of the liberties that should and could form a part of socialist society (South Yemen). It would be mistaken to blame the tendency to political dictatorship on the Soviet Union alone, since the indigenous political tradition and political culture of these countries are often prone to encourage such repression; but the Soviet Union’s identification with these policies indicates more than the requirements of an alliance. It is consistent with providing assistance in setting up parties and state institutions that enable the indigenous anti-democratic tendencies to find a new, perhaps rather modernized form.

Far from being single-mindedly inimical to the West, Soviet policy has, too often, allowed itself to be swayed from pursuing local advantages by tactical considerations arising from concerns over the thrust of East-West relations. Such initiatives have run counter to the popular movements in the region. In some cases, this involves playing too cautious a role precisely in order not to antagonize the West. Soviet indulgence to the Shah and its delay in openly backing the Iranian revolution is a striking case of this, as is the earlier failure of the Tudeh Party in Iran to oppose the American-supported coup of 1953. It would have done far more for the emancipation of the people of Iran and for the prestige of the Soviet Union if it had adopted a more, not less, intransigent position on these occasions. At other times, the Soviet desire to rival the West leads it into courting some of the more repressive right-wing leaders of the Third World who may have a disagreement of greater or shorter duration with their Western allies. In the Middle East, Soviet collusion with the Shah of Iran, including the sale of arms, was another case of such an alliance. Moscow’s tolerant silence on Khomeini — whose hostility to socialism and whose repression of the left is beyond doubt — is another case.

The failure to adopt an uncompromisingly critical stand on the issue of the US hostages in Iran also followed the line of indulgence. Perhaps, as one Soviet official tried to persuade me, this was not just to humor Khomeini but also a reflection of the depth of Soviet anger at Washington over the general deterioration in East-West relations. In any case, by coalescing with a general indulgence toward an anti-American Iran, it also led the Soviet authorities to be silent about the growing levels of repression inside Iran that accompanied the crisis over the hostages. One can also assume that Moscow encouraged the Tudeh Party in its policy of supporting the right-wing clerical forces of the Islamic Republican Party against President Bani-Sadr and the left opposition.

Soviet Negotiating Initiatives

No survey of Soviet policy would be complete without recognition of the attempts Moscow has made to meet the United States in a compromising spirit. The image of the Soviet Union as unequivocally challenging the United States throughout this region is not sustainable. Indeed there is a recurrent pattern of Soviet attempts to manage its relations with the United States in order to avoid confrontation over local conflicts, and of US rejection of such negotiation offers. In the mid-1950s, for example, the Soviet Union proposed that neither superpower sell arms to the Middle East. The US refused, as this was seen as a Soviet ploy to redress an imbalance of influence in its disfavor at the time when the United States was a far larger provider of military equipment. [23] From the late 1960s onward, the Soviets have offered to negotiate a ban on non-indigenous bases and warships in the Indian Ocean in line with proposals made by a number of littoral states, particularly India. Again, this has been portrayed as a Soviet attempt to remove the United States from an area where the West retains an advantage. When the Soviet Union did manage to join the US in a unified positon, on the Arab-Israeli question in October 1977, this initiative was soon rendered null by the unilateral US moves, leading to Sadat’s separate peace with Israel.

In the Horn, the Soviets tried to reconcile the Somalis and Ethiopians, and their efforts were undone partly by Arab and US encouragement of the Somalis. Later it was Soviet restraint upon the Ethiopians, coupled with a US refusal to back the Somali intervention in Ogaden, which limited the repercussions of that war in early 1978. There are strong indications that they have encouraged the South Yemenis both to resolve their differences with Saudi Arabia and to improve relations with Oman. In Iran, the Soviets have urged, and practiced, non-interference on the part of great powers. In Afghanistan they certainly intervened, to assist an established regime that had been threatened by a rebellion in which foreign interference played a role. Yet the Soviets claim their presence is not intended to be permanent, and they they will withdraw once outside interference ceases — this means once Pakistan ceases to allow its territory to be used for armed operations and the transit of military supplies. They, and the Kabul government, are quite willing to negotiate with Pakistan on disputed issues. [24]

The most significant and neglected of all such Soviet initiatives concerns the Persian Gulf, where the pattern of Western dismissal is once again repeating itself. Far from seeking to deprive the West of its oil, the evidence suggests that the Soviets realize the West’s need for Gulf oil, and are trying to make their acceptance of this clear. Thus, in February 1980, they called for an international conference to discuss the security of oil supply routes and the commercial access of all countries to the Gulf. [25] Brezhnev reopened this offer in a keynote speech to the Indian Parliament in December 1980, and in his speech to the Twenty-Sixth Congress of the CPSU in February 1980. Yet the conventional Western picture remains one of the Soviet Union trying to squeeze the West out of the region. The reasons for the Western refusal do go deeper, however, than mere suspicion of Soviet intentions: the West has, at the moment, a predominant strategic position in the Gulf which it is not willing to see subjected to any negotiation. The Western countries are also resistant to the ideas that the Soviet Union should have any commercial access to oil supplies at all. As so often in the “arc of crisis,” the West’s alarmism turns out, on closer examination, to be at least as much a product of its own purposes as one of the visible actions or probable intentions of the Soviet leadership.


[1] Michael Klare, War Without End (New York: Knopf, 1972), chapter 11, posits a “Great South Asian War,” with the center of gravity shifting from Indochina westward.
[2] Time, January 15, 1979.
[3] The first Cuban unit of 700 men arrived in Angola in October 1975, 15 months after the CIA operation there began. Soviet arms had ceased being supplied to the MPLA guerrillas in 1973, and only restarted in March 1975 (John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies (New York, 1978).
[4] Kissinger’s views are given in his interview with the Economist, Feburary 3, 1979, and in his SALT testimony, reproduced in For the Record (Boston, 1981), especially pp. 216-221, from which the above quotations are taken.
[5] As the US military attaché in North Yemen at the time, Lt. Col. John Ruszkiewicz, was later to report, the intelligence estimates upon which US policy had been based were false. Indeed, they were falsified by Saudi and US officials eager to invent a US-Soviet confrontation that did not exist. According to Ruszkiewicz, the reports sent to Washington on the 1979 Yemeni conflict by the American Embassy in Sanaa (the North Yemeni capital) were “greatly exaggerated.” When Ruszkiewicz complained about this to higher authorities, he was told: “If Yemen had not happened at that particular time, it would have been invented.” The military attaché’s conclusion is worth repeating, since it somewhat belies the official account of a Soviet “blueprint” for Middle East domination: “It seems to me we disastrously escalated our involvement in Vietnam as a result of an attack on an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin which never occurred. I cannot help but view what happened in Yemen as a Middle East version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.” See Armed Forces Journal (September 1980), p.72.
[6] Le Monde, February 14, 1981.
[7] Zhores Medvedev in New Left Review 117 (September-October 1979), p. 27.
[8] Figures on Turkmenistan from Asia Yearbook 1979 (Hong Kong: Far Eastern Economic Review). On Afghanistan from World Bank, Afghanistan: The Journey to Economic Development (March 1978).
[9] International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 1977 (London, 1978), pp. 64-68.
[10] Arms Control and Disarmament Agency figure taken from Defense Monitor (January 1979). ACDA figures omit two Arab countries that are included here, North and South Yemen.
[11] See Orah Cooper and Carol Fogarty, “Soviet Economic and Military Aid to Less Developed Countries, 1954-1978,” (Washington, DC: CIA Office of Economic Research), pp. 650 and ff.
[12] BP Statistical Review of the World Oil Industry (London, 1979).
[13] Jerry Hough, Soviet Leadership in Transition (Washington, DC: 1980), p. 131.
[14] For an atypically measured evaluation of the Soviet economy see the special issue of Time, June 23, 1980; also Alec Nove, “Problems and Prospects of the Soviet Economy,” New Left Review 119 (January-February 1980).
[15] A good general survey is contained in John Cooley, “The Libyan Menace,” Foreign Policy 42 (Spring 1981). Cooley points out that it was the Nixon administration, not the Soviet Union, who first allied with Qaddafi and that it was during the period of collaboration with the US that Qaddafi became involved in one of his worst ventures, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972.
[16] William Quandt, “Soviet Policy in the October Middle East War,” International Affairs (July and October 1977). See also Karen Dawisha, Soviet Foreign Policy Toward Egypt (London, 1979) and Mohammed Heikal, The Sphinx and the Commissar (London, 1978).
[17] For Faysal, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, January 1, 1974; for Khalid, ibid., July 3, 1979.
[18] Stephen Page, The USSR and Arabia (London, 1971), p. 81; and Dawisha, op. cit., pp. 26, 33, details Khrushchev’s strictures on Arab nationalism.
[19] John Erickson, “Some Notes on the Soviet Score,” Memorandum presented to the Foreign Affairs Committee, House of Commons, London, March 19, 1980. Erickson, the leading British authority on the Soviet military, identifies the rise of what he terms a “globalist approach” to foreign policy, marked by an “emphasis on access and influence rather than occupation and control.” (pp. 35-36).
[20] Independent information on the Soviet base facilities in Aden is not available but the main function seems to have been to act as a point through which Soviet crews (flown by Aeroflot to South Yemen) could replace personnel serving in the Indian Ocean and thereby avoid the need for the ships to make the long journey to home ports in the Black Sea or Far East. The majority of Soviet personnel are training South Yemenis in the use of new equipment, much of it, such as the SAM missile barrier around Aden, a direct response to US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Reports of a new Soviet base on the island of Socotra, owned by South Yemen, have not been substantiated: indeed both US State Department and British Foreign Office officials interviewed on this subject in early 1981 doubted the truth of these reports. “Anyone who thinks the Russians could have a base on Socotra has never looked at the Red Sea Pilot,” remarked the British official, in an illusion to the monsoon storms, shoals and lack of natural harbor conditions around the island.”
[21] In the words of the Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev: “I have had conversations with several experts and observers who have told me that if the American Senate had been going to ratify SALT II, if Western Europe had refused to take NATO cruise missiles as the USSR requested and if the Soviet-Chinese talks had gone successfully, then the Soviet government would have found it very difficult to make the decision to go into Afghanistan.” New Left Review 121 (May-June 1980), p. 94.
[22] Article 72 of the 1977 Soviet constitution states: “Each Union Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR.”
[23] Karen Dawisha, op. cit., p. 13.
[24] It would appear that a civilian faction of the Pakistani government, represented by Foreign Minister Agha Shahi, has favored negotiating with Kabul, but that the military, eager for increased support from Washington, have opposed this. The obvious inducement which the Afghan government could offer is recognition of the 1893 frontier between the two states, which Kabul has until now rejected.
[25] Sunday Times (London), March 2, 1980. For useful background see Shahram Chubin, Soviet Policy Toward Iran and the Gulf (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1980). Chubin’s overall framework is a conventional enough one, with periodic references to Soviet “bullying,” but the evidence he adduces points to different conclusions. He stresses both the caution of Soviet policy and the primacy of local political forces.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "The Arc of Crisis and the New Cold War," Middle East Report 100 (October-December 1981).

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