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On the Failure of Soviet Foreign Policy in the Middle East
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Soviet statesman Nikita Khrushchev famously shouted the phrase “we will bury you” during a speech in the 1950s. The words soon intensified the global atmosphere of the Cold War. However, the line was misinterpreted and falsely delivered.  In fact, it alluded to the Russian phrase, “we will outlast you and attend your funeral.” Khrushchev himself later also complained about the negative influence brought by the phrase: “I once said [we will bury you] and I got into trouble with it. Of course, we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.”[1] No matter what he was genuinely attempting to express, the US-Soviet confrontation during the Cold War did not change. However, the Cold War systematic structural role, which functioned as the most fundamental political structure at a global scale, seemed to have a less direct influence in the Middle East.

As British international political researcher, Fred Halliday put it, "in many ways, and despite its proximity to the USSR, the Middle East was less affected than other parts of the Third world."[2] On the Korean peninsula, for instance, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was mainly fixed on the 38th parallel; yet one cannot find such a clear boundary in the Middle East. The region was not as distinctly divided into two opposing camps as Europe was, maintaining a high degree of mobility and fragmentation. The foreign policy of the nations located there was consequently more diverse and flexible, representing that they were neither subject to the Soviet Union nor under the United States’ overall control. Moreover, it often resulted in a sense of powerlessness for the United States and the Soviet Union in the area, for they could neither stop the outbreak of the third Middle East war in 1967 nor stop Iraq’s attack on Iran in 1980. Therefore, the Soviet Middle East policy was initially based on a pragmatic principle. However, with the further involvement in the situation and confrontation, it lost its flexibility in the area, which eventually turned into a diplomatic failure and even contributed to its dissolution in 1991.

For its vast oil reserves and a long border with the Soviet Union, the Middle East was vital to the rest of the western countries. It could also block the eventual spreading of communist control to and beyond the Persian Gulf. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union became one of the world's hegemonies by defeating Germany. Along with the United States, the Soviet Union divided Europe into two distinctive camps, with the western bloc headed by the U.S. and the eastern by the USSR. However, in the Middle East, the USSR did not inherit its legacy of Tsarist Russia: it started with facing the blockade of the Western camp during the confrontation. At the same time, Middle Eastern nations, awakened by their national consciousness, have become outposts for the U.S. military containment of Soviet penetration in the Middle East. For instance, Turkey was a loyal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization throughout the early stages of the Cold War. It has sent troops to help the United States in the Korean War, much to Moscow's anger.[3] The countries of the Middle East seem to be a tightly linked plate for the Soviet Union: they formed an unassailable alliance that prevented foreigners from infiltrating. Yet the strongest fortress was often disintegrated from the inside. The Soviet Union needed a “fifth column”—Israel.

The founding of Israel was not only supported by the United States, but also by the Soviet Union. Its vote at the United Nations that approved the establishment of Israel had completely changed the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Regardless of whether the Soviet Union intentionally did so, the confrontation between the Arab countries and Israel caused by the creation allowed the Soviet Union to build a united front. As Israel joined the western campaign, it would naturally bring the rest of the Arab world to the USSR faction.

The crux of the struggle has been political control over the Palestinian region between the Zionists and the Palestinian Arab nationalists, which started more than fifty before the state of Israel was established.[4] The number of Jewish cities, villages, and industries had kept increasing since the first settlement in Palestine. The trend extended widely and spread rapidly. By 1936, fears and anger were raised among Palestinians, believing their native land would be taken—— and would become a minority instead.[5] Revolts then started in 1937, after the failure to partition Palestine between its two groups of people, and were soon ended by the British army in 1939.[6] The League of Arab States was thus formed on March 22, 1945, among the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria to promote the political, military, and economic cooperation within the Arab world while ensuring a cohesive solution to the regional conflicts.[7] As part of its original deal; the leaders formed a collective agreement to protect the interests of the Palestinians. In 1947, the UN proposed the second partition, intending to subdivide Palestine into Arab and Jewish states with a foreign enclave surrounding Jerusalem. Clashes erupted between Palestinians protesting against the abuse of their right to self-determination and Jews celebrating their coming freedom and grew into a full-scale civil war.[8] After being defeated by Israel in 1948, governments in the Arab world underwent a period of reform in response to the dissatisfaction among its citizens. Eventually, in the 1950s, friendly relationships and cooperation were established among the Soviet Union and Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Algeria, for instance.[9] After the alliance was formed, the Soviet Union further provided a large amount of military equipment and assistance to the Arab coalition camp.

The Central Committee was well aware that to gain a foothold in the Middle East, the USSR must follow two fundamental principles: first, to rely on the Arab-Israeli conflict; second, to encourage Arab nationalist anti-colonial efforts. Thus, the Soviet Union needed to ensure a continuous conflict, but with controllable intensity. At the same time, to unite Arab nationalists, they needed to tolerate radical nationalists due to their strong opposition to the west. Yet it was an arduous task to deal with extreme radicalists: especially after Saddam came to power in 1978. This radical nationalist leader strangled the last remaining power of The Communist Party of the Soviet Union(CPSU) in Iraq and banished members of the Arab Communist Party. He was also dissatisfied with the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1972 and started to contact the United States. After all, the most severe blow to the Soviet Union's deployment in the Middle East is the Camp David Accords in 1978.

Egyptian president Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat's visit to Israel in November of 1977 included an invigorating speech before the Knesset, Israel's national assembly, and launched a series of groundbreaking direct Egyptian-Israeli talks. However, the negotiations were entangled with Israel's withdrawal from and Egypt's demilitarization of Sinai and the potential status of Gaza and the West Bank, and about the normalization of Israel and Egypt.[10]  To assure the continuation of the meeting, U.S. President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Begin to its presidential retreat in Maryland. The conference concluded with two accords signed among Egypt, Israel, and the United States—“A Framework for Peace in the Middle East” and “A Framework for Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel.”[11] Also anticipated was the complete normalization of diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations. The Egyptian–Israeli Peace Treaty of March 26, 1979, conformed to these September 1978 expectations.[12] The accords had a considerable impact: regardless of the collapse of the "United Front" within the Arab countries, they also marked the collapse of the Soviet Union's diplomatic foundation in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict had always been the lynchpin for the Soviet Union’s Middle East strategic deployment, and Egypt, who had fallen into the western faction, had been one of its most critical allies in the area.

The Western faction had always hoped to use the Baghdad Pact that built an "iron curtain," especially with Iraq, to fight against the Soviet Union, it was strangled from within by the Arab nationalist trend of thought instigated by the Soviet Union. The coup d'état of the Liberal Army in 1958 eventually turned Iraq into an influential member of the Soviet camp. The Iraqi Revolution occurred on July 14, 1958. Until then, Iraq established a close relationship with Great Britain, which had signed the agreement for the mandate power over Iraq in the post-World War I period. Albeit the independent status and position obtained in League of Nations in the 1930s, Iraq was controlled by Great Britain in aspects, domestically and internationally; ergo, Iraq became the keystone of Western Cold War defensive schemes, illustrated by the post-World War II implementation of the Baghdad Pact that created a military alliance among the western faction.[13]

As mentioned, Iraq joined the Baghdad Pact in 1955 that attempted to suppress the influence of communism and nationalist upheavals. Against such a backdrop was the staged Revolution of 1958—— parts a result of the joint efforts of the National Union Front, the revolution of 1958 was staged. On 14 July 1958, members of the Iraqi royal family and several government officials were assassinated during a military coup called the Free Officers Movement; a portion of Life's account appears as follows:

      “Nothing but fire-blackened ruin and debris today testify to the events at the Palace of Spaciousness. The government speaks vaguely and variously of resistance, ascribing it to trigger-happy palace guards or to the reckless crown prince.”[14]

The revolution was primarily welcomed and supported by its people: it brought hope to the poor. People went on the streets to celebrate and vowed to defend the fruits of the revolution.[15] The Hashemite regime, established in 1921 under the auspices of the British government, was overthrown and Iraq was proclaimed to be an independent republic. Moreover, Abd al-Karim Qassim, the Free Officers Movement leader, became the ruler of Iraq. The newly founded Republic of Iraq was based on the beliefs of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism: Iraq withdrew from the Baghdad Pact signed before, abolished its agreement of mutual security and bilateral relations with Britain, and ended the treaty signed with the United States.[16] The Soviet Union and China first recognized the new regime, and it later established diplomatic relations with many socialist countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Peoples' Republic of China, and the Soviet Union.[17]

The Soviet Union, particularly, helped to train and export arms to Iraq, allowing its self-defensive capability. As the monopoly of arms was broken since then, the western nations could no longer obtain absolute control over the quality, quantity, and usage of the arms it exported. On the other hand, Iraq declared its principle of an economy not dependent on the capitalist-imperialist market.[18] Many imperialist powers immediately sought to undermine and eradicate the consequences of the revolution and the influence of the Soviet Union: the U.S. Navy was sent to Lebanon, and the British Army was sent to Jordan.[19] The Soviet Union, in response, warned them not to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and helped Iraqis eliminate direct intervention from the west.

Despite the seemingly smooth process of communist ideological penetration, the Soviet Union did pay a heavy price for it. First, it had to tolerate the strangulation of the Arab Communists by Nasser and other Arab nationalists; the communist organizations of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were being suppressed and expelled. Second, it also had to withstand the erosion of communist ideology by pan-Arabism. In its clear sense, pan-Arabism asserts that two unifying powers form the basis of nationhood: Arab ethnic and Islam. Some of those who resented the intervention of European powers in the area declared that the solution to the troubles in the Middle East could be found in pan-Arabism, the unity of the people of the Arab world. After the Suez War in 1956, the popularity gained by Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser after the tripartite invasion by the British, French, and Israeli forces cast the Hashemite regime, a monarchy ruling Iraq supported by the British, in an increasingly negative light in the region.[20] Nasserism reached its peak, under its campaign for the union of Arab peoples called pan-Arabism, which underscored the importance of Arab nationalism.[21] In Syria's first government, on the other hand, the Communists who were aligned with the Soviet Union played a significant political role, which Syria, in fear of USSR's influence, agreed to merge with Egypt and set up the UAR in 1958, the first attempt to create a united Arab.[22]

By 1978, it had come to the point of time when the Soviet Union's Middle East strategy was about to become a total failure due to the resolution in the Arab-Israel conflicts when the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 gave it hope to revive. After the United States overthrew the Mosaddeq regime in 1953 and supported Pahlavi to come to power, Iran kept contact with the United States until the 1979 revolution. The primary political units during the revolution that delivered down the shah's regime were strikes and mass demonstrations: although the overarching ideology of the revolution was once that of Shiite Islam cloaked in third-world sentiments, it was in certainty a multiclass coalition of broadly disparate groups, from liberal nationalists to Islamic radicals, that subsequently overthrew the shah.[23] In the past decades, the United States had also provided countless economic and military assistance to Pahlavi, making the Iranian army into the most powerful military force in the Middle East. The occurrence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 led the Soviet Union to expect that Iran, which is being isolated by the Western camp, could become an ally of the Soviet Union. At the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev praised the Islamic Revolution as a significant event in the international community and a revolution against imperialism. He also supported Iran to decide its affairs without foreign interference, and declare that this is an inherent power of the Iranian people. The attempt to draw Iran to the eastern side kept on going: especially at the end of 1979, when the Iranian Hostage Crisis broke out. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko even delivered in his speech in Bonn that "[he]look forward to this matter being properly resolved with the participation of all parties." [24]

However, all the efforts that the Soviet Union had made were nullified after it invaded Afghanistan. On October 9, 1979, Afghan president Nur Muhammad Taraki became assassinated in a coup that brought Hafizullah Amin into power, who had done little to stabilize the society and accordingly led to Soviet intervention.[25] On December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union assassinated Amin, installed his stead Babrak Karmal, a leading member of the Afghan Communist Party, and dispatched troops to aid the newly founded Communist regime.[26] Khomeini expressed his indignation at the Soviet invasion, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh strongly condemned the Soviet Union. USSR responded negatively to this, however. In the next following year, the diplomatic conflict between the Soviet Union and Iran became apparent. On June 30, 1980, the Iranian authorities expelled Soviet diplomats and closed the consulate in Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh continued to condemn Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan and accused the Iranian People’s Party of being the agent of the Soviet Union. This also laid the groundwork for the tragedy of the Iranian People's Party two years after. Although the Soviet Union and Iran fought over the Afghanistan issue, the Soviet Union did not wholly abandon its diplomatic efforts with Iran. In the view of the Soviet Union, even if Iran cannot be drawn, it cannot be pushed to the side of the United States again. For this reason, how to treat Iraq, its quasi ally, becomes extremely important.

When the Iran-Iraq war broke out on September 22, 1980, the Soviet Union was shocked. The Iraqi delegation visited the Soviet Union on September 22, the day the war broke out, and requested the Soviet Union to provide necessary assistance to Iraq by the 1972 Soviet-Iranian Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.[27] However, due to the Soviet Union's passive response, the Iraqi delegation left Moscow the next day. At the same time, Iran proposed its hope that the Soviet Union will suspend the delivery of military equipment to Iraq, of which the Soviet Union was also rejected. The Soviet Union wanted to use a passive attitude to hinder the escalation of war: for the Soviet Union who had already been caught in the Afghan war, the new conflict was a huge burden. More importantly, since the unpredictable nature of war, the USSR hoped to maintain a stable relationship between Iran and Iraq——the extreme radical nations, according to the Soviet ruler. At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromicko clearly stated his neutral attitude; subsequently, Brezhnev also called on both sides to exercise restraint and ceasefire as soon as possible since he was worried that the war would give the United States an excuse to intervene in Iran to control their gulf oil.[28] The concerns were justified. As soon as the war had started, the United States, which strengthened its relationship with Saudi Arabia, dispatched troops to the Persian Gulf.

On January 20, 1981, the United States and Iran reached an agreement on the hostage crisis, marking the temporary cessation of the anti-American boom in Iran. The United States could hence turn its attention from Iran to Afghanistan. For the Soviet Union, however, it was a sign of danger: the rashly support for Saddam would make Iran an ally with the United States again. However, the cautiousness of the Soviet Union did not gain the confidence of the Iranian authorities. For Khomeini, the Soviet Union, as the most powerful country on the border, deserves vigilance. He had called on the Iranian people to rebuild the country without relying on either the Soviet Union or the United States.[29] “God willing, the warrior Iranian people will maintain their revolutionary and sacred rancor and anger in their hearts and use their oppressor-burning flames against the criminal Soviet Union and the world-devouring United States and their surrogates,” Ayatollah Khomeini said in a written message, “As long as I live, I will not allow the real direction of our policies to change.”[30] Secondly, the long-term oppression of the Soviet Union had made them untrustworthy in Iranian beliefs. Most importantly, the Soviet Union had a record of invading Afghanistan, the neighboring country of northern Iran: no matter how much the Soviet Union has compensated, the geopolitical situation will not be reversed.

The Soviet Union has always regarded the Islamic Revolution in Iran as an anti-imperialist feat but ignored the ideology of the Islamic Revolution itself that would destroy the regional basis of the communist ideals. Khomeini’s concept of theocracy cannot accommodate the Communists around him. At the same time, his output of the Islamic Revolution also threatened the Soviet government’s rule over the Muslim world. And this went beyond geopolitics and has become an ideological struggle, the struggle for leadership in essence. The 1980s was a period of great prosperity for the Soviet Union, allowing it to interfere and invade Afghanistan's internal affairs. At the same time, the Soviet Union is still nurturing Vietnam in the Indochina Peninsula, Cuba in Latin America, and Angola and Somalia in Africa. However, it had ignored the fact that there is no permanent and everlasting power in the world, just like the United States’ loss in the Vietnam War during the 1970s, the Soviet Union would eventually withdraw its troops in 1988 from Afghanistan—leading towards its disintegration. And it can be concluded that if the US imperialism showed the advanced stage of capitalism, the Soviet imperialism showed the incorrect way of using its national power at the primary stage of socialism.

The strength of Soviet diplomacy lies in pragmatism. It would not be restrained to either geopolitics or ideologies. And this has been the utmost powerful political legacy of Joseph Stalin. However, under the intricate changes in the Middle East, the USSR should change its strategy: since it could not find a firm ally, it should stay on the sidelines indeed and wait for opportunities to ensure its flexibility. The second the Soviet Union fell into the war in Afghanistan, it lost its diplomatic flexibility that it could no longer focus on geopolitics—rigidity would inevitably come. Also, before 1970 the USSR had no critical economic interests in the Middle East; In the 1970s and 1980s, in contrast, the Soviets became heavily involved in selling arms to Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Iran—becoming the second factor that contributed to its rigidity in foreign relations.[31] And its break of the relations with Israel deprived the Soviet Union of any objective role in Middle East affairs.[32] And by the time when the Soviet Union realized this, everything was too late, and it was difficult to reverse the course.

Anping Yang is a junior in Garrison Forest School who is interested in the field of politics and international relation. She has been working on research projects with professors from UCLA and Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include the social and political impact of extremism during World War 2 and the influence of Persian Wars on Athenian democracy.



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[1] Richard C. Hanes, Sharon M. Hanes, and Lawrence W. Baker, eds., “Renewed Tensions,” in Cold War Reference Library, vol. 2, Almanac Volume 2 (Detroit, MI: UXL, 2004), 191–212, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3410800032/WHIC?u=garrisonfor&sid=zotero&xid=e0f5f201.

[2] Louise L’Estrange Fawcett, International Relations of the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] ROBERT O. FREEDMAN, “Turkey, Relations With,” in Encyclopedia of Russian History, ed. James R. Millar, vol. 4 (New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 1587–88, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3404101411/WHIC?u=garrisonfor&sid=zotero&xid=8bfb3159.

[4] Don Peretz, “Arab–Israel Conflict,” in Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, ed. Philip Mattar, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 235–39, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3424600279/WHIC?u=garrisonfor&sid=zotero&xid=6e4cb2b5.

[5] Peretz., “Arab-Israel Conflict.”

[6] Peretz., “Arab-Israel Conflict.”

[7] Sonia G. Benson, ed., “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1948 to 1973,” in Middle East Conflict, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Almanac (Detroit, M

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