In the seven years since the Iran-Iraq war began, Soviet policy toward the conflict has been quite constant. Moscow regards the war as “senseless” and has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire and return to the status quo ante, as outlined in the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq. Moscow considers the war as dangerous not only because of its destructiveness to both combatant states, but also because, by alarming the Arab states of the Peninsula, it has provided a justification for greater US military deployment in the region. In the longer run, Moscow is concerned about the collapse of either the Tehran or the Baghdad regimes, and the uncertainty that could result in a region so near the Soviet Union’s borders.

These general guidelines have prevailed since 1980, and they reflect even longer-standing Soviet perspectives. Even during the 1969 Iran-Iraq conflict, when there was a much clearer lineup of a pro-American Iran and a pro-Soviet Iraq, official policy was one of neutrality. In the current war, Moscow has not endorsed the war aims of either side, but it has tended to favor whichever combatant is in its view more conciliatory. Thus up to 1982 it tilted to Iran, and since then Soviet policy has favored Iraq. The Soviet Union is Iraq’s largest arms supplier, and the USSR has increasingly endorsed Iraq’s by now low-key conditions for peace. While the ruling Baath Party in Iraq is by no means a communist party, and has indeed suppressed the Iraqi Communist Party, Moscow regards Iraq as a “state of socialist orientation,” one of the 20 or so radical Third World states that may, at some future point, begin a transition to socialism.

This commitment to Iraq has not prevented Moscow from continuing to talk to Tehran, in the hope of one day influencing the mullahs and in an attempt to prevent any return of US influence in Iran. Soviet-Iranian relations reached a low in 1983, when half the Soviet embassy personnel were expelled and thousands of members of the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party were imprisoned. The Tudeh leaders have been kept in prison ever since; they are occasionally produced on television, as, in effect, hostages against Soviet conduct.

Subsequently there were various indices of improvement: In 1985 the USSR agreed not to supply Iraq with the long-range ground-to-ground missiles with which it had been hitting Iranian cities, and a number of high-level diplomatic missions have visited each other’s capitals. Iran remains the most important country in the region for the USSR, given both its size and position on the Soviet frontier. Some limited quantities of Soviet arms have reached Iran during this conflict, but whether this reflects any political calculation on Moscow’s part is not clear.

In overall terms, Moscow’s policy has been successful in maintaining Iraq’s military capability, but it has failed to win any substantial influence in Tehran. Indeed, in recent months Soviet-Iranian relations appear to have declined again. Iran is playing a more active role in supporting guerrillas in Afghanistan, and opposes UN-sponsored negotiations to end that war: Iran demands an immediate and unconditional Soviet withdrawal. On their side, the Soviet Union and the Afghan government are giving more aid to opponents of Khomeini: Most of the exiled Tudeh cadre are now in Kabul; a Tudeh radio station has been broadcasting from Kabul since 1984; and there have been reports of activity in the Baluchistan area of Iran, bordering Afghanistan, by guerrillas associated with the Fedayin Majority, a left-wing Iranian group now allied with the Tudeh. Gorbachev himself has taken up a much tougher line against Islamist manifestations inside the USSR. This tone is reflected both in Soviet commentaries and in statements from Kabul. Soviet press coverage of the Iran-Iraq war seeks to use the horrors of the conflict to undermine the credibility of the regime in Tehran, and to contrast the death and destruction in Iran with the peaceful and prosperous conditions in the Muslim areas of the USSR.

Other factors have contributed to this Soviet-Iranian impasse. The USSR has protested on several occasions about Iranian treatment of Soviet ships in the Gulf. Some have been detained and searched by Iranian forces, and in May a Soviet ship, the Ivan Koroteyev, was hit by an Iranian mine. Iran has replied by denouncing the USSR for sending to Iraq the weapons that have been killing Iranians, and for its policy in Afghanistan. While both sides proclaim that economic relations are independent of political considerations, both know that this is not the case. Soviet-Iranian trade in 1986 was well down from that of 1985: Soviet exports fell from 204 million rubles to 58 million, while Iranian exports to the USSR fell from 144 million to 18 million rubles. A major agreement on economic cooperation was signed in December 1986, and the USSR is helping Iran with some industrial projects. It seems that Soviet experts working on Iranian industrial projects, who were withdrawn in 1985 following Iraqi attacks on Iranian cities, have now returned. But no agreement has been reached on restarting gas exports to the USSR through IGAT-1, the gas pipeline that ceased pumping during the revolution. Some agreement on price has apparently been reached; but some repair work is needed on the pipeline itself.

Despite these difficulties with Iran, Soviet policy towards the Gulf has become more active in the past few months in several respects. On the diplomatic front, the USSR has worked with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council to produce a resolution on the war more effective than those that preceded it: Whether the USSR, or indeed any other Security Council member, is prepared to go along with arms sanctions or trade embargoes on combatant states remains to be seen. The USSR has, in a parallel move, proposed that it play host to an international conference on the war at which Iran and Iraq could hammer out a compromise. In a statement on July 3, the USSR said it would withdraw its ships from the Gulf provided all other non-local states did the same, and Iran and Iraq agreed to stop attacks on civilian shipping. In July a high-ranking Soviet delegation, headed by First Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov, visited Tehran to discuss Soviet proposals. The Soviet decision to provide three tankers for Kuwait to use in the Gulf is also an index of a greater involvement in trying to contain the war.

Yet, while the USSR is in some respects collaborating more with the West on Gulf policy, the Iran-Iraq war also provides an arena for sharpened rivalry between Moscow and Washington. This is true in Tehran, where Moscow is clearly alarmed by the Irangate revelations. McFarlane and North may have failed in their 1986 mission to recruit Iran to an anti-Soviet campaign, as Kissinger recruited China in 1971, but few can doubt that the door remains open on both sides and that Washington will try again, once the Irangate dust blows over. Moscow is also alarmed by speculation in the US and in some Arab states about ending the war through a change of government in Iraq; Moscow believes that Saddam Hussein must stay in power, because without him the Iraqi regime as a whole could collapse. To this concern about US covert moves is added concern about the growth of Chinese influence in the region, in countries where the USSR is at a disadvantage. The Chinese have become a major arms supplier to Iran and, despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, they have developed cooperation in military and economic fields with the Israelis.

Moscow feels concerned about the Gulf war, both because of the dangers involved and of where the combat is taking place. This concern has, to date, not enabled the USSR substantially to affect the course of the war, or to limit US advances. The new diplomatic activism reflects Gorbachev’s view that regional conflicts inhibit East-West relations and should be contained and is evident equally in Soviet policy toward the Arab-Israeli issue. But in both of these arenas, major question marks remain about how effective Soviet policy can now be. One concerns regional states: In the case of the Gulf this relates to whether Iran, which has hitherto ignored Soviet appeals, will now change its policy. All the indications are that, towards Iraq as toward Afghanistan, Tehran will persist in its militant line. The other question concerns the US: Washington has to date refused to engage in joint diplomatic initiatives with the USSR on Third World crises, and recent US policy toward the Gulf has been marked as much by rivalry, as over the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers, as by cooperation, as in the UN Security Council resolution. Moscow may well deplore the Gulf war, but it may be that it will have to live with it for some time to come.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "The USSR and the Gulf War," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).
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