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 Washington’s strategic discourse laments the invidious role of the USSR and its “proxies” and “surrogates” in the Third World. One central theme of Ronald Reagan’s 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 you’ll find the Soviet Union stirring a witch’s 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 USSR’s relative strength vis-à-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 II.

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 Moscow’s 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 Israel’s 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. Iraq’s 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. Syria’s 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 scene.

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 States.

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-à-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 amiss.



[1] This Western hierarchy of interests is not the same for the Soviet Union. As Michael MccGwire shows in his article in this issue, Moscow’s quest for strategic influence in the Middle East derives mainly from the region’s proximity to the Soviet southern border and its potential as a staging ground for hostile military buildup. – Eds.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "The Great Powers and the Middle East," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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