Today the Soviet Union is the dominate power in the Middle East. By contrast America and Britain have few friends in this critical corner or the world.
TO A CASUAL OBSERVER, it might appear that the Soviet Union blundered its way into the Middle East. The lesson of history tells us otherwise. The Kremlin has a history of covetous eyes regarding the Middle East — especially Egypt and the Persian Gulf area. To many Russophiles, influence in these areas was virtually a God-given commission.
Geography Soviet Style
In 1848, a Russian ex-diplomat, Fedor Tiutchev, wrote a poem entitled "Russian Geography." In this patriotic poem he designated seven rivers as God-chosen Russian frontiers. The seven rivers were the Neva, Volga, Euphrates, Ganges, Elbe, Danube, and curiously the NILE! His ideas of a Russian empire reaching into Egypt were certainly not new. They had been around for a long time, as far back as the year 1001 A.D. For example, when one Benjamin ben Jonah of Tudela, a learned traveler and diary-keeper of the twelfth century, spoke of Alexandria as a "commercial market for all nations," he specifically mentioned the Russians among the various traders gravitating toward this strategic place. Move on to more recent times, and one finds that of the various parts of the African continent, Egypt has been the apple of many a Russian ruler's eye. This has undoubtedly been due to Egypt's strategic geographical location, its comparative closeness to Russia's shores and the physical importance of the Nile valley. Under Catherine the Great (1762-96), Russia's activities in Egypt were dictated by its desire to speed the fall of the Turkish Empire (which extended from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and included much of North Africa) by threatening it from the north. The Empress rendered military assistance to the Mameluke Ali-Bey, a local governor who succeeded in making Egypt independent of Turkish rule for a few years. In 1784 it was rumored that Russia had agreed to support the independence of Egypt in the next war with the Turks. The price was permission to quarter Russian troops in Alexandria, Rosetta and Damietta — various Egyptian cities.
Czarist Military in Egypt
In the following years several Russian officers visited Egypt. They were received by the Egyptian Beys rebelling against Turkish rule with great honor as military advisers. The Russian government even encouraged the enlistment of Russian peasant youth in the military formations of the Mameluks, members of the Egyptian military body. As a result, by 1786 this militia was already one-fourth Russian! During the same period a Russian consul appeared for the first time on Egyptian soil and hastened to assume the political leadership of the rebellion. When the Beys were defeated by the Turkish Sultan in 1786 they appealed to the Russian consul for intercession. The latter sought to defend them on the grounds that they were under the protection of the Empress of Russia Russia gave direct military advice to Egypt in the nineteenth century. Rostislav Fadeev, a retired general, served as military adviser to the Khedive (title of the viceroy of Egypt) in the years 1875-76. He was even slated to become commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army. His refusal to wear the tunic of an Egyptian officer blocked his plan. The Kremlin has always recognized both the strategic position of Egypt and its vulnerability. Russia's position in the nineteenth century was reflected in the words of Czarist foreign affairs minister Giers: "The proclaimed principle of Egypt for the Egyptians is a Utopia. Egypt because of its geographical position is of such political importance that its independence is impossible. It would become a battle field for European rivalries." It is no wonder the Soviet Union is today supplying Egypt with arms, technical advisers, economic support, political backing — and using any other kind of influence-mustering technique at its disposal.
The Suez Canal
Then as now Russia was quite conscious of its deficiencies in open water lanes. Its interest in any "chokepoint" or sea gate such as the Suez Canal has always been great. Knowing of the interest of the Soviets, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps of France paid a rapid visit to Russia in 1858 in search of support and possible fiscal aid for his Suez canal project. Sponsored by De Lesseps, a prominent Russian financier became a member of the executive board of the Suez Canal Company. The Suez Canal continued to be a very important auxiliary route for Russian communication to the Far East even after the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Russian warships made use of the canal, violating the then existing rules regarding coaling by belligerent warships. Today, the Soviets consider the reopening of the Suez Canal essential. It is a vital arterial umbilical cord connecting Black Sea and Mediterranean naval forces with their Indian Ocean units.
Russia Trades With Egypt
Next to political, military and strategic considerations, Russia has had a centuries-long interest in Egypt as a trade partner. In 1699, Peter the Great had insisted on free trade communications with Egypt in his negotiations with Turkey. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russia occupied second place in Egyptian exports, principally cotton, and was sixth in imports, primarily kerosene, flour, corn, cattle, sugar and timber. Other steps taken with the blessing of the Czar's government strengthened even more the commercial ties between the two countries. A few such measures were: The founding of a Russian chamber of commerce in Alexandria in 1903; a floating exhibit of Russian goods on the deck of a Russian vessel; a permanent exhibition of Russian handicraft in Port Said; the establishment of a committee for the development of Russian trade in Cairo in October 1914.
But the Kremlin has continued primarily to play a direct military king-of –the-mountain game. After World War I, there was an attempt for about a decade-and-a-half to promote underground Communist activity in the Arab World. But this effort ran into stiff local opposition. Moscow changed its tactics and shifted in 1935 to cooperation with nationalist and religious groups. All this was done under the benign banner of "anti-colonialism." These tactics were continued after World War II. The apparent aim was to create an anti-Western climate in the region. Stalin specified, through Molotov, that the area "in the general direction of the Persian Gulf" should be recognized as the main area of Soviet aspirations. In the late forties and early fifties the Kremlin renewed its subversion tactics against various conservative Arab regimes, with Iraq and Egypt being among the main targets. In this period, despite both Stalin's anti-Semitism and long standing Communist opposition to Zionism, Soviet diplomacy also sided with the creation of an independent Jewish State. It was their belief that: "Such a state in the midst of the Arab World would be a continuous source of conflict between the West and the Arabs, offering Russia some interesting opportunities in an area from which she has been virtually excluded." (Adam B. Ulan, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1967, New York, Fredrick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1969, p. 584.)
Soviet Policy Shift
Once Israel was established, Soviet policy toward the new state cooled perceptibly. The Kremlin shifted its sympathy toward the Arab World. By 1955, the U.S.S.R. began a substantial program of arms aid to the Nasser regime and certain other Arab countries. The Soviet role in the Suez crisis of 1956 helped consolidate relations with Egypt, and shortly thereafter Syria became the next client state which Moscow undertook to shield from alleged "Imperialist" aggression — in this case, from Turkey. In 1958, the Soviet Union assumed the role of self-proclaimed "Protector" of Arab interests during the Lebanon crisis. It asserted among other things, that Soviet warnings to the West and military maneuvers in the Caucasus had saved the new revolutionary government in nearby Iraq from being crushed. Meanwhile, the Soviets began to heavily arm Egypt. The pivotal event that brought further substantial changes in the Soviet Union's relationship with the Arab states was the six-day Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. Despite Soviet approval of the November 1967 Security Council resolution to restrict a "ruinous arms race" in the Middle East, large shipments were dispatched, along with additional Soviet military advisors. Their numbers are estimated to have increased from around 3,000 in 1968 to 10,000 or 15,000 today. Coupled with military aid to Egypt, the U.S.S.R. also stepped up its military and technical assistance to other Arab states, including Iraq, Algeria, the republican regime of Yemen, and the new South Yemen government in Aden. In early 1971, Presidents Podgorny of the U.S.S.R. and Sad at of Egypt signed a fifteen-year "Friendship and cooperation treaty." It appeared to extend what is known as the "Breshnev doctrine." This involves the Soviet Union's claim to intervene militarily in the event of a threat to a socialist state. The doctrine was applied in Czechoslovakia in 1968. If applied in Egypt, it could bring Soviet forces into the next round of the Arab-Israeli conflict, should it occur. The pact ended the fiction of an Egyptian non-alignment stance in world politics. This treaty, of course, is intended to safeguard Russian investments to the tune of an estimated 4.5 billion dollars in military and economic aid. Few realize that the aid and treaty are part of a centuries-long, CALCULATED maneuver by the Kremlin. It has continued Russia's Middle East interests since the first "fact finding" mission was dispatched to Egypt in the year 1001 A.D. The United States, Europe and Japan must face the fact that the Soviet Union is involved in Egypt, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf j Indian Ocean area by DESIGN, not accident. She is there to stay unless forcibly dislodged.
Persian Gulf Power Stream
The British are, for all practical purposes, implementing their "east of Suez" policy. That is, they are leaving the Persian Gulf / Indian Ocean area — at one time a "British Lake." A token force will remain in the area. But the latest announcement of the Heath government that the East of Suez policy is to be partially reversed cannot be seen as having any meaningful long-term implications for the area as a whole. (Although it is reported that the U.S. and Britain are quietly providing Iran with land, air and sea power to compensate for the Gulf area pullout.) If Britain appears somewhat disinterested about having the Persian Gulf area as her sphere of influence, the Soviets are not. They realize that the Gulf is of vital strategic importance in many ways — including the control of oil flowing out of the area. The Soviet Union realizes that Iran itself is of utmost strategic importance. It is the gateway to remote Afghanistan, divided Pakistan and teeming India on the East. On the West it is the bridge to Iraq and a dagger pointed to the Mediterranean. Iran links the Soviet Union with the Indian Ocean by land and is the axe that splits East and West. The Russians would like to plant their feet in Iran — whether they act like it or not. The Soviet Union's ultimate goal of domination over Iran is time honored and has NOT changed.
The Soviet Union and Persia
Soviet attempts to dominate the area of the Caspian Sea and Iran (then called Persia) date back to the days of Ivan the Terrible, 1560. Later, Czar Peter the Great's interest in the region of Persia was well nigh addictive. He ordered one of his younger officers by the name of Volynskii to spy out the land of Persia. After searching out the area, Volynskii told the Czar, "Conquer Persia." Peter, always willing to add to the domestic domains, launched an attack on Persia. He met little resistance. But his territorial gains were lost or given away by successors. Still later, after many decades involving a see-saw of successes and failures, Georgia, immediately north of present day Iran and Turkey was annexed to the U.S.S.R. Persia, ruling the area, went to war. But her forces were badly mangled. She was obligated to sign a treaty with Russia. One of the forced agreements barred Persia from maintaining a navy on the Caspian Sea. It was now a Russian lake. For all practical purposes Iran became a satellite of the Russian empire. In one generation Russia had pole vaulted the Caucasus and was a definite threat to Turkey, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and India. Only one power kept the Russian bear from overrunning further geopolitically important stretches of real estate and pushing to the Indian Ocean. That one element was the mighty power of Her Majesty's Fleet — the British Navy. Nonetheless, Russia continued to eye the territory of Iran.
Persia a Special Place
In 1918, prominent communist K. M. Troianovskii summed up the Soviet Union's feeling toward Persia: "The Persian revolt can become a key to a general revolution.... Owing to Persia's special geopolitical position, and because of the significance of its liberation for the East, it must be conquered politically first of all. This precious key to revolutions in the East must belong to the revolution" (Russian Foreign Policy, Ivo Lederer, editor, p. 521). During World War II Russian troops once again surfaced in Iran. Their officials were running the northern provinces. By 1944 with the tide of the war turning, Russia began to squeeze Iran in a political vise. The Iranian government survived only because of the backing given it by Britain and the United States. The Soviet Union full well appreciates the important place of Iran. It also appreciates the political and military meaning of British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf area. A power vacuum will occur. And like nature, Russia abhors a vacuum. The lesson of history and past Soviet intentions ought to be very instructive in telling us what happens if Britain and America fade from the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean / Iranian area.
Britain vs. the Soviet Union
A Russian publication, Novoe Vremia, as far back as May 9, 1889 stated: "Two forces alone are struggling for supremacy on the vast expanse of Asia — Russia and England." Then analyzing Britain's desire to establish spheres of influence in Iran, the publication pondered whether British naval might would really be able to conquer Russian might. On May 1, 1889, Novoe Vremia made the observation: "Warships, as is well known, possess the quality of floating, and if anything causes them to depart... the supremacy of the British influence in Southern Persia will no longer be a fact' (ibid., p. 509). Can anyone assume the Russians view the situation any differently today? That would be a mighty careless assumption to make, viewing the realities of world politics. The Russians then as now had some very specific plans on bottling up Iran and the Persian Gulf area. When the British became involved in a war in South Africa, October, 1899, the Russians saw an opportunity to absorb the entire country of Iran. Russian military personnel were already pressing for some aggressive move against either Turkey, India, China or Persia. The publication Vedeomosti counselled, "It is time that we, using the opportune moment, achieve our age long dreams of reaching the open ocean in the Near East. We are talking about the occupation of the port of Bandar Abbas with the neighboring islands of Qeshm (Tawilah), Hormuz, Larak and Henjam."
The Strait of Hormuz "Chokepoint"
Check those points on the map and you will readily see their importance. They sit astride the Strait of Hormuz "chokepoint," or gateway that leads out of the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz is a 26 mile wide waterway at the southwestern end of the Persian Gulf. It commands all the marine exits and entrances in an area which in 1970 supplied 28 percent of all the oil used in the world, and which holds 62 percent of the proved oil reserves. Most of the oil sails past Hormuz in ships carrying the incredible output of Persian Gulf states. Among them are — Iran (3.3 million barrels per day), Saudi Arabia (2.9), Kuwait (2.5), Iraq (l.5) — in thousands of barrels per day: Abu Dhabi (600), Qatar (355), Oman (326), Bahrain (76), Dubai (20). Since the British influence is rapidly disappearing, and the U. S. is not making any great overtures to take up the military slack, the question is not whether anyone will move into the Persian Gulf area — but WHO will be first: Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Soviet Union. A gambler would probably put his money on an eventual Soviet takeover. The Soviet Union would merely be fulfilling its expressed desire written down in a secret 1940 pact signed by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Japan. The Soviets then said their "territorial aspirations center south of the national territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean!"
Indian Ocean — "Soviet Lake"?
Look south of the Soviet Union and what do you see? Iran, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The Red Navy already has a string of naval facilities — some still unconfirmed — in such places as South Yemen's Socotra Island, Mogadishu in the Somali Republic and trawler facilities at Mauritius. Then there is Ras Banas in the United Arab Republic, Berbera in the Somali Republic and Hodeida in Yemen. Soviets are reportedly helping develop the Indian port of Vishakhapatnam and are adapting it for the possible use of submarines. Today, the Soviet Union is acknowledged to be the dominant power in the Arab nations that border the Mediterranean. Also, in South Yemen, Soviet advisers support a guerrilla movement whose aim is to gain control of the sunbaked South Arabian area. In 1970 the Soviets completed a major new highway across Afghanistan linking Soviet Central Asia with the Indian Ocean via Pakistan. At peak periods as many as 25 Soviet warships have been spotted in the Indian Ocean, including missile cruisers, nuclear submarines and supply vessels. As yet, the Soviet Union's navy has not established a meaningful presence in the Indian Ocean. There are many reasons for this — one of which is that the approaches to the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea and around the Cape of Good Hope are in Western control.
Soviet Union Needs Land
This, of course, does NOT mean the Soviet Union cannot make extremely important advances in some land area. In fact, the U.S.S.R. is traditionally an expansionist LAND power. Hence, the strategic importance of Iran's territory. Before the Kremlin is in a position to rule the sea, it must acquire more LAND outposts. What more useful outpost than Iran, which would give the Soviet Union a LAND access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean? The Kremlin is using various means to increase its influence around the rimland of the Indian Ocean. For example, Russians are hungrily developing trade relations with Kuwait. One hundred percent of Kuwait's timber and eighty percent of its steel come from the Soviet Union. The Russian Moskvich is the hottest selling car in Kuwait. Iran is also feeling the impact of the Soviet economic juggernaut. To the tune of thousands of cheering townspeople waving Soviet and Iranian flags, a 630-mile Trans-Iranian gas pipeline was recently opened. It will carry natural gas — 600 million cubic feet a day at opening — from southern Iranian oilfields to the Soviet Republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
The Bear Makes Its Moves
The hammer and sickle is becoming the dominant symbol from Iran to Egypt and from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Slowly but relentlessly the Russian bear is pursuing its objective — dominance both politically and militarily across the vital mid-section of the world. Meanwhile, the United States and Britain are being edged further toward a peripheral no-power position in the area. Europeans, presently with few political or military inroads into this vital piece of global real estate, see the handwriting on the wall. They realize that if the Soviet Union continues to flex its diplomatic, military and economic biceps throughout the Middle East, a conflict is sure to rise. The Middle East is too vital for an enemy power to assert its authority unchallenged. Realizing that the Soviet Union is in the Middle East by design, not by accident, means that its power must be challenged if the area is to remain accessible to all nations. The question for the next few years is: From what quarter will the challenge come, and HOW will it be met?