The Middle East During The Cold War

The impact of the rivalry between Soviet Union and United States in the Cold War distorted internal politics and exacerbated or complicated regional conflicts. Indeed, the grafting of the USA/USSR competition over pre-existing Middle Eastern rivalries in several cases intensified them. At the same time, though, and in some cases, the Middle Eastern political élites themselves made use of the Cold War to pursue their own interests of hegemony, security or colonial emancipation. Following Khalidi (2009) in assuming that during the Cold War the level of penetration of the Soviet and American influence was proportional to the degree of the strategic importance of the region, I will first discuss the strategic and geopolitical features of the Middle East. Secondly, I will describe some significant historical events, in order to show how the Cold War logic affected the area and how it shaped the region’s political reality, both from a regional and a domestic point of view.

The cold War and the Middle East

The Cold War dominated world politics from the end of the WW2 to the collapse of Soviet Union. On 5 March 1946, when Churchill pronounced its famous speech at Westminster University, in Fulton, Missouri, describing Europe as divided by an iron curtain, with eastern Europe subjected to the “Soviet sphere” and the West under American influence, the Cold War was already on going. For more than forty years, superpowers competed ideologically, militarily, technologically and diplomatically. The effects of the rivalry extended all over the World, generating high degree of polarization and aggravating pre-existing conflicts. Although there were no wars fought directly by the two superpowers, proxy confrontations occurred in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East.

The Middle East was a primary area of contention (Khalidi, 2009). Since WWII, superpowers were aware of its importance, in terms of its strategic geographic location and its vast oilfields and gas deposits. In fact, from a geopolitical point of view, the region lays at the junction of three continents, immediately south to the border of Russia and the Caucasus and it is surrounded by four major seas, namely the Mediterranean, the Black and the Caspian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Before the end of the war, both United States and Soviet Union were already strategically interested in the Middle East’s oil reserve. In fact, not only at the time were the great powers the World’s major oil producers (Khalidi, 2009), but also the war made them increasingly aware of the strategic role oil had acquired in warfare. Their motorised forces, in fact, were crucially dependent on oil for their propulsion, as were their navies and air forces (Khalidi, 2009). Consequentially, they become intensely concerned about the risk of their supplies being denied by their enemies and about preserving them.

Nonetheless, the region’s importance in terms of military strategy and oil supply further established throughout the Cold War. In the late 1950s and until the Cuban missiles crisis of 1962, American missiles launching submarines were based in Turkey; in the 1960s and for about a decade, when a longer range missiles technology became available, American submarines were in Spain, with Soviet antisubmarine naval forces and air units based in Egypt and Turkey. During the 1970s, the military and strategic territorial concern of both powers moved to the Arab Peninsula and the region bordering the Indian Ocean, where the new generation American missiles launching submarines were positioned (Khalid, 2009).

Anyway, in the aftermath of the WWII, United States and Soviet Union were already militarily and diplomatically engaged in the region, respectively in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. The Middle East, thus, became a major theatre of bitter rivalries between the great powers, the effects of which would deeply influence and shape its politics and historical dynamics.

Conflicts, alliances, nuclear threats and the complex events which occurred in the Middle East during the Cold War were determined by the following underlying forces: fear of the superpowers of being excluded from the control over the region; their attempt to replace Britain’s power in the Middle East; anti-colonialism and the struggle of Middle Eastern states for the emancipation, which led to their alliances with the superpowers; the emergence of Arab nationalism and the diffusion of the communist ideology. Ideology, indeed, played a fundamental role. It was adopted both in terms of appeal made to potential allies and in terms of economic, political and social models they offered to them (Halliday in Sayigh and Shlaim, 1997).

One of the events which reveal the pervasive effects of the international competition in the Region is The Arab cold war of 1958-1970, as Malcolm H. Kerr (1965) has called it. In the aftermath of the Suez crisis, in which both superpowers have supported Egypt and the Arab states against Israel, French and Britain, the pre-war Saudi-American relationship was cemented by the “Eisenhower Doctrine” and Saudi adherence to it. In his famous speech of January 1957, Eisenhower admitted the strategic importance of the area and denounced the Communist threat in the Middle East and Soviet Union’s interest in power politics, which have become clearer with its involvement in the Suez crisis. Soviet political, economic and military aids were depicted by President Eisenhower as ‘International Communism’s instruments of domination’ (Eisenhower, 1957), apparently harmless means to manipulate local instability for Soviet power-purpose. Thus, he authorized ‘the employment of the armed forces of the United States to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid, against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism’ (Eisenhower, 1957).

The Saudi-American relation exacerbated Saudi relations with Nasser’s Egypt, a former non-aligned state which was moving closer to the Soviet Union. At the same time a heterogeneous agglomerate of political forces supported by the Soviet Union was formed, including not only communist and radical parties, but also nationalist, pan-Arab, anti-colonialist and “bourgeois-democratic” groups. In order to balance the secular and radical wave of Arab regimes, as Khalidi (2009) pointed out, Saudi Arabia and its ally United States adopted Islam and religious propaganda as ideological counter-weapon. In this way, Islam became a crucial tool of the American intelligence during the Cold War. The result was a high degree of polarization in the Region, with the Soviet Union aligned with authoritarian nationalist regimes and USA supporting absolute monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Arab Gulf States and authoritative regimes in Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.

Another instance of the superpowers influence over regional politics in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although the origin of the conflict has little to do with superpowers rivalry (Halliday, the Cold War competition generated polarization around the issue, fuelling arms race and leading several times to the risk of a nuclear strike. In the first phase of Israel life, namely from its birth in 1948 to the Suez Crisis of 1956, superpowers competed in supporting Israel. Polarization occurred after 1956, with USA supporting Israel and Soviet Union supporting Arab States. The competition took place in terms of armaments supply and economic aids, with the stakes escalating and culminating with the 1968-1970 and the 1973 wars, when Washington declared nuclear alert for the last time in the history of the Cold War.

Internally, cold war rivalries distorted economic decisions, domestic policies, social, military and political balances, with the superpowers being responsible of – or supporting – coups and internal rebellions (Khalidi, 2009). Religion and ideology have been instrumentalised in order to pursuit the Cold War logic of balance of power, with some impacts also on the growth of democracy. Indeed, there was no stress by the United States to promote democracy or Human rights in the area. USA itself covered or supported actions to subvert Middle Eastern democracies – such as the American-British’s coup in Iran, which brought down the elected Mossadeq government and reinstalled the autocratic Mohammad Reza Shah in 1953. This behaviour was coherent with the American security tasks to preserve the Middle East from Communism and export the capitalist logic of free market; tasks which could be effectively pursued by aligning with the wealthy and conservative local elites. Soviet Union, instead, worked attentively to encourage the development of socialism and distributive logic in the area, trying to appeal to the working classes and local communist parties (Khalidi, 2009).

An instance of the pervasive effect of rivalry at the domestic level is the case of Iran. Due to geographical contiguity, Iran felt continuously menaced by the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the war, though, communism was not perceived by the élites as good option for the development of the country. Thus, at the beginning of the Cold War, United States security interests, coincided with the Iranian ones (). US supported Shah, whose conservative government led to absolutism, corruption and to political stagnation, which, combined with fast modernization and social disruption, contributed to the rise of the Islamic Revolution. USSR also played a role in undermining the power of the Shah. As Rubinstein tells us, although Soviet Union did not directly interfere in the fall of the Shah, communist agents played an important role in spreading discontent in the Iranian oilfields, contributing to the economic paralysis, which undermined the pro-American government.

However, concerning the case of Iran, two considerations must be done, which, to different extents, could be applied to several other cases in the region. First, the Cold War did not represent the first case of influence and penetration by a hegemonic power in Persia. In fact, for example, both Russia and Britain had great security and economic interest in the Persian Gulf and intervened several times in the country, both militarily and not. In 1907, in order to balance their influence, the two states agreed to divide Iran; 1942, unsatisfied of its neutrality, they agreed to invade it.

Secondly, not only the rivalry logic diverted Iranian domestic policy, but also Iranian (and not only) élites made use of the Cold War and of USA support in order to pursue their security goals and keep itself independent from the Soviet threat, which, as previous events show, had worried them long before the beginning of the USA/USSR competition.

Finally, as Halliday (1997) pointed out, the Cold War competition had also another role in the region. It worked as a distraction, diverting attention from domestic problems, which could otherwise be earlier observed and solved. What emerged from the end of the competition and the victory of the West, thus, is just a not distorted and more grasping picture of the region and its pre-existent complexities. (Eisenhower doctrine)

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