Once again events in the Middle East and adjacent areas dominated the world situation in 1980. To Americans, the inability to obtain the release of the 52 diplomats held hostage in Tehran since November 1979 was particularly dismaying. But of even greater underlying importance was the inability to mount a firm allied or regional response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where a grinding and brutal war went on with no sign of ending. In the fall, military conflict broke out between Iraq and Iran, again with no end in sight and with consequences for oil supply that by the end of the year had further tightened market prospects, and caused a new jump in oil prices. Finally, the Camp David process-which the Carter Administration had regarded as its greatest achievement-bogged down over issues of autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza that lay at the core of any hope for settlement of the issues between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

So it was a grim year for the peace of the area and for American policy there. Leaders in friendly Arab states, and in Israel, had already been shaken (rightly or wrongly) by the inability of the United States to do anything to preserve the Shah or forestall the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79-perhaps the most destabilizing event in the Middle East in the past decade. Now they watched as President Carter sought in vain for ways to negotiate the hostage issue or bring effective pressure to bear on the Ayatollah Khomeini and company, and finally resorted to a rescue attempt that aborted through mechanical failure in the transporting helicopters. When the United States sought to strengthen its one-time ally, Pakistan, as a key part of its response to the invasion of next-door Afghanistan, it became clear that General Zia ul-Haq would accept American help only under a new treaty commitment-and perhaps not even then-that he simply had no confidence that America had the power or the will to protect Pakistan in the event of reprisals from the Soviet forces now (as Pakistan put it) at the Khyber Pass itself.

Thus, although the President proclaimed in January a Carter Doctrine that American interests in the area of the Persian Gulf were vital and that any external threat there would be met by military force if necessary, it was evident to all that neither the military power nor the political cooperation needed to give full meaning to his words yet existed. When the Administration set about seeking bilateral arrangements for defense cooperation, it found only Oman ready to play in the Gulf area itself, and Kenya and Somalia at its fringes. Potentially the most notable element in the emerging defense system was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's welcome of military cooperation with the United States and the American use of Egyptian facilities. Despite the formidable naval forces the United States now kept on a long-term basis in the Indian Ocean, and major plans to develop the new Rapid Deployment Force, the efforts to impress the rest of the world that there had been a resolute turnaround in U.S. policy fell far short of persuasion.

That claim seemed unconvincing to America's allies, who found presidential leadership in an election year far less than decisive. Not that the allies, either in NATO or in the European Economic Community (EEC), were more purposeful. On the Middle East they appeared even less so. In their troubled state over American leadership on major problems of the area, they sought more often than not to go their own way.

The East-West dimension-the Soviet threat and superpower competition-remains a central feature of the Middle East situation, and in the wake of Afghanistan tension is now at a postwar peak. The view from the Kremlin must have looked far less promising to the invasion's authors at the end of 1980 than 12 months earlier. The security planners in Moscow could scarcely have greeted with pleasure the rising American profile in and around the Middle East, especially in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, backed up by a resurrected strategy of containment which a "peace-loving"-to use one of the Russians' overused words-President adopted with the endorsement of a widening American consensus. The damage to the Soviet Union's self-cultivated image in the Third World as the champion of the anticolonialists was especially severe among the Islamic countries.

Over the past dozen years Soviet-American rivalry has aggravated regional crises and been sharpened by them. But this is not to suggest that the superpowers have created the instability of the Middle East. The wrenching changes of the postwar period, and the newness of the postwar states, would in any event have brought with them a constant threat of internal upheaval-as the Iranian Revolution and resulting hostage crisis illustrate. And the depth of regional rivalries and antagonisms in the area was well demonstrated in late 1980 by the war between Iraq and Iran.

So, in a sense, all the elements that combine today to make the Middle East the most volatile and threatening area in the world were at work during 1980. What has never been a stable international system at any time in the last 35 years now seems to be disintegrating into what could become a vicious circle of conflict, action and reaction. Before we examine the events of the year itself, let us draw back briefly to look at the postwar history that had brought the area, and the actors in it, to the present dangerous state.


Through the nineteenth century and up to 1945, regional politics in the Middle East, even among the handful of sovereign states, was in essence a projection of European politics. Then, in a quarter-century, the number of sovereignties in the Middle East and North Africa nearly quintupled, as a result of the withdrawal of the former imperial powers. With so many new states having little or no prior experience in the conduct of interstate relations, particularly on the basis of concepts of territorial sovereignty that are alien to Islamic tradition, they could hardly fail to be erratic.

From the first the Soviet Union and the United States have been involved. Soviet objectives were primarily strategic, to exclude extraregional powers from the area and to extend the range of the Soviet Union itself in a broadened sphere of influence, embracing at least the bordering Middle East states "at its back door." In these states, including Afghanistan, tsarist Russia had vied with imperial Britain; it was almost inescapable that this rivalry should be renewed with the successor checking power, the United States, which built a position of preponderant influence in Iran after the removal of Premier Muhammad Mosaddegh in 1953.

In the first postwar decade U.S. interests, too, were primarily strategic. But as time wore on the United States developed two additional key elements of national interest-a strong moral commitment to the survival of Israel and a crucial American stake in the oil of the Persian Gulf. Although Britain and France had long historic ties with the area and depended much more heavily on Middle East oil, the British in particular were forced to withdraw from Egypt in 1954-56, and the failure of the Anglo-French Suez expedition of 1956, largely because of American condemnation, left the United States in the position of paramount custodian of Western interests west and north of Suez. East of Suez the United States continued its partnership with Britain and accepted the latter's superior responsibility. So long as Britain retained its paramount position in the Persian Gulf, the Western powers were able to assure adequate protection to the rapidly growing oil industry in the Gulf and dependence on it in the industrial states.

In the next ten years, American power was such that its role could be maintained without serious strain. In 1958 U.S. forces landed unopposed to quell an incipient civil war in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union turned to an opportunistic strategy, stressing especially massive aid to Egypt. For 15 years Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian leader, towered over Arab politics, extending his military arm into the Arabian peninsula.

There followed the first of three key events, and dates, that have shaped the present state of the Middle East. In 1967, after Nasser had closed the Gulf of 'Aqabah, Israel's southern access to the sea, with the United States and other Western nations responding indecisively to a clear breach of the 1956-57 understandings, Israel took matters into its own hands, and in six days decisively defeated Jordan and Syria along with Egypt, emerging in control of large Arab areas. The United States by stages became more clearly the unilateral guarantor of Israel's security and defense posture. In the attritional war of 1969-70, an American-supported Israel held off a Soviet-supported Egypt, while in September 1970 both the United States and Israel joined to hold the ring in Jordan, preventing Syrian intervention while King Hussein dealt with what represented in effect a radical Palestinian insurrection. It was a high-water mark in American effectiveness and prestige and another defeat for the Soviet Union, which was already a strong covert supporter of the Palestinian radicals.

In 1971 two developments started a downward swing in relative American power. Largely because of the rapid growth in U.S. demand for oil, the United States lost its energy self-sufficiency and started enlarging its imports of Middle East oil. In the new tight market, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) achieved the first major price rises. Where once the major multinational oil companies, mainly American, had decided the price of oil, the operations of these companies in the Persian Gulf, as in OPEC generally, were now nationalized, and control of both price and supply passed to the producer governments to the point where by the end of the 1970s almost all dealings took a government-to-government shape. While the power transfer involved was economic, at least on the surface, the impact on the prestige and strategic standing of the United States was substantial and became progressively greater in the decade as American dependence on imported oil grew.

The second development was the final withdrawal of British armed forces and military advisers from posts "east of Suez"-in 1967 from south Arabia and four years later from the Persian Gulf. The United States-applying the Nixon Doctrine of 1969 of reducing direct American participation and relying on local governments and forces to assure their own external security-expanded only modestly its very limited military position in the Gulf area (consisting chiefly of a token naval flotilla operating out of Bahrain and a naval and air base on the British atoll of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 2,500 miles south of the Persian Gulf) and instead supported, as new "twin pillars" of Gulf security, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both now rich from oil and encouraged (Iran especially) in massive arms purchases chiefly from the United States. The United States had moved in the 1950s and 1960s to fill the gap left by the effective British and French withdrawals from the Mediterranean littoral areas. In the 1970s it made no such move in relation to the Gulf. No doubt the reasons had to do with the Vietnam War mood and congressional resistance to the defense costs that would have been entailed, but there was no indication that any policy other than relying on the Shah (and to lesser extent the Saudis) was ever considered. America's chips were placed heavily on one major bet, that Iran under the Shah would remain stable, grow in power, and continue acting in close parallel with U.S. interests.

Meanwhile American policy was indeed active at the western end of the area. In 1972 Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, evicted Russian advisers and technicians from Egypt, but a year later used Russian arms to mount an initially successful surprise attack on Israel at the Suez Canal. With Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the lead role, the United States intervened with the cooperation of the U.S.S.R. to halt the war, and then went on to mediate withdrawal agreements, a process from which the Soviet Union was largely excluded. It was a brilliant success in geopolitical terms, and seemed for a time to have reduced Soviet influence in the Middle East to a low point. But when the initial separation-of-forces agreements did not lead to a more comprehensive settlement, a very high share of American policy attention was (and probably had to be) devoted to continuing mediation efforts and to supporting Israel, Egypt and (for a time) Syria with a very high percentage of the total American foreign assistance program-at the expense of other concerns in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The 1973 War was, among other things, a clear demonstration that the basic détente agreements reached with Moscow in 1972 would have little bearing on the Middle East: the superpowers were as far as ever from any understanding or guidelines on what they might do and where and how, in what was already the most critical and sharply contested area in the Third World. It should not have been surprising that the Russians moved in the mid-1970s to consolidate their influence at the southern exit of the Red Sea in South Yemen, and then supported a Marxist coup in Ethiopia in 1976, accepting in the latter case the loss of a previous position in rival Somalia. In April 1978 another Marxist military coup in Kabul (by officers trained in the Soviet Union over the preceding two decades) brought to power a Soviet-oriented regime in one of the three adjacent Middle Eastern countries that had been one of the prime historic objectives of Russian action along its southern border.

In all probability the United States could not have prevented any of these Soviet moves, and perhaps the failure to protest them more loudly reflected a sense that mere words would underscore American helplessness. But neither did the United States take any steps to redress the balances, local and regional, that were being progressively threatened. In particular, U.S. security relations with Pakistan, instead of being restored or tightened, were virtually cut off in 1977-78 to emphasize American denunciation of Pakistan's clandestine attempt to develop a nuclear-weapon capability, with the added factor of disapproval of General Zia ul-Haq's military regime. To Soviet leaders it may well have appeared that the United States was prepared to accept what amounted to a clear change in the neutral status of Afghanistan that had been the accepted, though never firmly agreed, state of affairs going back to the mid-1920s.

By 1978 a strategist familiar with the nineteenth-century struggle between Britain and Russia would have said that in the twentieth century version of that struggle-now embracing a wider geographical area stretching to the Mediterranean and into North Africa and the Horn of Africa-Russia had made gains at the western and eastern extremities but that the center and high ground were still in the U.S. sphere. The reliance on Iran, in particular, had moved to the point where the Shah was received in Washington with at least the same deference as the heads of state of major formal allies in NATO and the Pacific. Neglecting Pakistan, ignoring Afghanistan, Washington clung to the policy of supporting an absolute ruler on whose internal policies it had in fact ceased to have any of the effective influence of the 1950s and 1960s, before the oil boom made the Shah financially independent and placed him in a position to affect the U.S. energy situation directly.

The Iranian Revolution was primarily an internal convulsion, whose causes have been well analyzed elsewhere. Soviet influence has played little part in its origins and in its course up to the present. But in terms of geopolitics and prestige, the overturn of the Shah dealt a heavy blow to the United States. This is no place to reargue the impossible choices faced by the Carter Administration in the climactic months of the revolution, or the wisdom of the decision to admit the Shah to the United States in October 1979 (even on apparently urgent compassionate grounds), which was bound to imperil American officials (and other citizens) still in Iran, or to force their withdrawal and thus take the United States right out of the picture in the ongoing revolution. Perhaps any attempt by the United States to achieve a modus vivendi with the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime would have had little success in any case so long as the revolution kept evolving through successive stages into the present struggle for power. But the seizure of the American hostages early in November 1979 transformed an already serious reverse for American policy into a humiliating and obsessive crisis that probably did as much as any single factor to defeat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.

The events of these three years-1967, 1971, 1978-and the continuing problems and trends they symbolize form the essential backdrop for the successive crises that were at center stage during 1980. Let us look first at the hostage crisis, which persisted throughout the year and as of mid-January 1981 was still unresolved.


From the start, American handling of the hostage crisis was bedeviled by the fact that the hostages were actually taken and held by a group of student radicals not under the clear control of any civilian authority. As seen in Washington, the student captors were terrorists who had seized and held for ransom American diplomats and property. As seen in Tehran, the captors were revolutionary heroes, who defied the "imperialism" of "the Great Satan," the revolutionary code for the United States. The hostage holders, however, were not government officials. While professing their willingness to take orders from the Imam, as the Ayatollah Khomeini came to be called, they were at the same time able repeatedly to create situations in which he simply ratified their actions.

Two days after the Embassy takeover, the Imam dismissed Mehdi Bazargan and his provisional government. For nine months, the republic had no prime minister, and a headless, truncated Cabinet managed the ministries without visible coordination or clear authority, as attested by the frequent reversal of positions on the hostages by Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who served as Foreign Minister in much of the period. In these months-and in fact until late in the fall of 1980-there was no "responsible authority" with whom serious negotiations could be carried out, reducing the United States to the use of intermediaries of uncertain weight or reliability.

Partly for this reason, and partly because any major military action appeared likely to mean the immediate death of the hostages and risk wider complications, the Carter Administration initially adopted a measured strategy that combined efforts to mobilize world opinion with a progression of nonmilitary punitive steps that included the suspension of deliveries of military hardware previously purchased, and a freeze on Iranian assets held in the United States (and in some cases by American banks' overseas subsidiaries). Both sides, almost simultaneously, brought American purchases of Iranian oil to an end.

In December 1979, after delaying in the hope of giving the Iranians an "out" for early release, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a first resolution affirming the inviolability of diplomatic personnel and calling for the immediate release of the hostages, and then a second resolution that invoked the possibility of sanctions. But the Soviet Union abstained on the second, and early in January vetoed a U.S.-sponsored third resolution that would have called for comprehensive economic sanctions. (Obviously, the U.S.S.R. was by this time playing for favor with the Iranian regime. Soviet propaganda beamed at Iran took on a strongly anti-American cast even before the invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, which brought to an end any hope that the Russians would be more than formal subscribers even to support for the principle of diplomatic immunity.)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), to which the United States appealed for a judgment late in November 1979, unanimously decided six months later that Iran "must immediately terminate the unlawful detention of the United States . . . diplomatic and consular staff," none of whom might "be kept in Iran to be subjected to any form of judicial proceedings or to participate in them as witness." But the ICJ proved no more successful than the U.S. government or the United Nations in changing the Iranian position.

All statements of protest by the United Nations, the ICJ, the European Community, and especially the United States might have given central instead of incidental or no attention to Iran's violation of the strict Islamic tradition of asylum. This at least would have spoken in an idiom familiar to the Imam and his religious establishment.

The public statements of Iranian leaders had from the first stressed two demands-the return of the Shah to Iran for trial, and a formal American apology for American "crimes" in Iran. President Carter categorically rejected both, but in an effort to meet the sentiments that lay behind the demand for an apology, the Administration did lend itself in January and February to U.N.-initiated proposals for an international tribunal that might hear evidence and issue a report on American involvement in Iran. Great diplomatic effort went into the makeup of a commission that might be acceptable to both sides, but when its members arrived in Tehran in March-supposedly on the basis of informal understandings that they would see the hostages, start their work, take charge of the hostages and remove them from Iran, at least to a neutral location-the Imam's order repudiated the arrangements. The mission left in disarray; early in April the Imam announced that the fate of the hostages would be decided by the Majlis, or Parliament, for which ongoing elections were to be completed in May and which would surely take months to get down to the matter.

Faced with this breakdown and impasse, the Carter Administration cut formal diplomatic relations with Iran, initiated intensive talks with its allies on concerted economic sanctions against Iran, and (in total secrecy) approved in mid-April military plans for a rescue operation involving a helicopter-transported force of some 200 men that was intended to achieve a surprise landing in Tehran by night, overpower the militants, and pluck out the hostages. Concurrently, speculation sped through Washington (possibly stimulated by the Administration) that the Administration was considering some form of military action such as blockading or mining Iranian ports. Thus, when American representatives met with Europeans and found a reluctance to act that stemmed in large part from doubts that economic sanctions would be either wise or effective, they apparently obtained agreement to sanctions largely by the veiled threat that the only alternative would be a resort to strong military measures.

In the event, the rescue attempt collapsed through the mechanical failure of several helicopters before the force could reach Tehran, and in the ensuing evacuation an accident caused the loss of eight lives. On the political front the operation was condemned in most Middle Eastern countries, notably by a formal resolution of the foreign ministers of the 42-member Islamic Conference that met shortly after. Whether or not the Europeans were persuaded of the official American explanation that the rescue effort with only a limited purpose amounted to a "humanitarian" and not a true "military" action, they held their peace-but remained quite unpersuaded that cutting off areas of the residual trade trickle between Iran and the West might help bring the Iranian regime to its senses over the hostages. It was a low point in interallied relations, in a series of such points during the year.

After the April debacle, matters simply hung fire through the summer as the Majlis moved into place and the struggle for effective power in Tehran continued. Only early in September did the Imam finally suggest four public conditions that, for the first time, omitted any mention of an American apology. (By this time the Shah had died in Cairo of the cancer that had apparently lain undisclosed at the base of his medical problems for years.) The new conditions did call for the return of his property held in the United States, an American pledge of noninterference in Iran's domestic affairs, the release of Iranian assets (presumably including military equipment bought and paid for), and the barring of American claims against Iran. Although stated in extreme form, the new four points were at least negotiable, and were so noted by the President and by Ronald Reagan as the opposition candidate.

When the Iraq-Iran war started later in September, the more pragmatic Iranian leaders seemed to have reached a clear conclusion that it was time to get rid of the hostage issue and restore at least the eventual possibility of a reasonable relationship with the United States. But the Majlis, still heavily influenced by unbending religious professionals unwilling to make any apparent concessions to "the Great Satan," acted slowly and framed its formal position only at the beginning of November, on the eve of the American election. If they had hoped that the Carter Administration would be stampeded into accepting the conditions without further cavil, for the sake of election gains, this hope was quickly dashed. The differences, no less than the legal complications, remained vast. The next two months were consumed in strenuous efforts to narrow or close the gaps, latterly through the good offices of Algeria and against the background of threatening noises from the President-elect designed to convey that Iran had best settle with the Carter Administration.

There is little point in short-term speculation as of mid-January 1981. Looking back over the year, it seems clear that the Carter Administration allowed itself to be drawn into a number of unwise moves. It had itself initially contributed to dramatizing the issue, as, for example, by the President's contesting the primaries from the Rose Garden of the White House. The media, too, made it a constant sensation, keeping the public aroused with a sense of urgency to bring the captives home.

But most of all, the whole question of the hostages had to be seen in the context of the ongoing struggle for power within Iran. So long as the hostages were of use in that struggle, any solution was probably out of the question and the United States might have done better to sit back and wait until the power situation had sorted itself out, or some new pressure (such as the war with Iraq) cancelled out the usefulness of the hostages to the extremists in Iran. But this would have been extraordinarily difficult to present to the American people. It was, quite simply, a no-win situation from any standpoint, and there is not even the consolation that if the hostages are released the United States could then emerge with any real hope of useful influence within Iran in the near future, when the revolution may at some stage take a new and sharp turn either to relative moderation and responsibility or conceivably in just the opposite direction.


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan late in December 1979 shocked the international community. President Carter's early remark that it had changed his view of Soviet behavior more than anything in his previous years in office struck many as naïve in view of the whole Soviet postwar record. Moreover, in Afghanistan itself the Soviet Union had supported the April 1978 coup that brought to power a Marxist and Soviet-oriented regime, first under Nur Muhammad Taraki and then Hafizullah Amin, and later gave that regime generous aid along with multiplying Soviet advisers, as it sought to cope with a spreading rebellion. With the regime progressively threatened by the insurrection, it can hardly have come as a complete surprise to the President or his Administration that the Russians might feel they simply could not tolerate the overthrow of a client regime and would act to prevent that outcome by any means required.

Indeed, the massing of Soviet troops in the direction of Afghanistan, from at least the start of December, must have been detected by U.S. reconnaissance satellites, leaving unanswered questions about what messages may have been conveyed to Soviet leaders and what the Administration did to alert its allies and others before the event. Perhaps, in its preoccupation with the hostage crisis, the Administration simply did not come into focus until it, and the world, first learned that 50,000, shortly leveling off at 85,000, Soviet troops had poured into Afghanistan, ostensibly on the invitation of the local regime but with even that justification knocked to pieces by the fact that the then-ruler, Amin, had been crudely assassinated and his replacement, Babrak Karmal, did not even arrive on the scene until after the supposed "invitation" was extended.

From any standpoint it was a landmark event-the first use of organized Soviet forces outside the recognized Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, a clear-cut attempt to determine the future of a sovereign and formally nonaligned country by brute force, and a move with major strategic implications. There were those who argued that the last had been paramount in the Soviet decision-that the ability to threaten Pakistan and even the crucial Strait of Hormuz from a new advanced military position, plus the demonstration of Soviet power and will, could change the whole perceived superpower balance in the Middle East and Southwest Asia with drastic long-term consequences. Others, while not denying that the Russians might welcome new opportunities of this sort, emphasized the defensive motive of simply not letting a Soviet client go down in defeat or chaos. The Soviet claim that "external forces" had been assisting the Afghan rebels-meaning the Chinese and the American Central Intelligence Agency-lacked any evidence to back it up, although it may have reflected an underlying Soviet fear about its southwestern "underbelly" if the insurgency had succeeded. The only external meddler was the Soviet Union. The Kremlin was more honest when it stated that it would not allow "a Marxist regime" to flow down the drain.

That this was a clear-cut use of force across international borders could not be doubted. The United States took the initiative in convening the U.N. Security Council early in January, condemning the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in these terms. The Soviet Union vetoed the resolution, cosponsored by five Third World members of the Council, which then convoked the General Assembly in special emergency session. The Assembly approved a mirror image of the Council draft on January 14 by a vote of 104 to 18 (with 18 abstentions), a resounding moral defeat for the U.S.S.R., which was able to enlist the support only of its satellites and a handful of states clearly beholden to it (only South Yemen in the Middle East). An almost solid front of Western and Third World, notably Arab and Muslim, countries voted for the resolution, among them Iraq, a longtime recipient of military and technical aid from Russia and one of the earliest states to conclude with it a friendship treaty.

After an initial intense round of consultations with its European allies (which however apparently did not nail down just what the American government proposed), the Carter Administration moved ahead on two immediate courses of action-the first designed to shore up Pakistan and the second to make Russia pay a price in terms of its general relationships with the West-and greatly stepped up a third and longer term effort, to strengthen the American military posture in the area and to develop a new network of security ties and military facilities there.

With Pakistan, the Administration faced the desirability of reviving ties that had lapsed (as we have noted) in the previous five years. Indeed, in November of 1979 U.S.-Pakistan relations had hit a postwar low when a mob, inflamed by false (and perhaps Soviet-assisted) reports that U.S. agents were involved in the invasion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, burned the American Embassy with only the most feeble government efforts to protect it.

But in the new crisis the Administration moved quickly to invite the Pakistani Foreign Minister to Washington for preliminary talks, after which it announced publicly an offer of $400 million in military and economic aid to Pakistan. However, it quickly became apparent that there had not been a real meeting of minds; Pakistan wanted a firm new American commitment to replace the SEATO Treaty which Pakistan had allowed to fade away under President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The only remaining U.S. undertaking was a 1959 executive agreement, never submitted to Congress, that called only for the two parties to consult in the event of attack. Soundings on the Hill indicated to the Administration that even if it wished a new treaty such action would be approved by the Senate only with considerable accompanying criticism of Pakistan's nuclear and human rights record, and possibly even continuing conditions. So the Administration felt able to offer only a reaffirmation of the 1959 agreement, possibly endorsed by a general congressional resolution.

Early in February Presidential Assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski and Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to Pakistan, only to receive a clear rebuff. Obviously Zia (who had called the original aid offer "peanuts" and spoken in terms of two to three billion dollars as the scale of Pakistan's needs to rebuild its armed forces and its economy) felt American aid would not be very great, and above all that to align his country once more with America might invite Soviet reprisals well before he could hope to benefit from the American connection. It was a humiliating diplomatic failure, in full public view, and hardly improved by the fact that Brzezinski sought relief from the discussions by an excursion to the Khyber Pass, in which he allowed himself to be photographed pointing a rifle in the direction of Afghanistan and the U.S.S.R. Whatever the level of genuine Soviet fears, for weeks thereafter the picture was grist for Soviet internal propaganda justifying the invasion as designed to repel an American threat from the south.

Pakistan then announced that it would put its trust in the nonaligned movement and in its Islamic ties. In fact by this time the first emergency meeting of the Islamic Conference in Islamabad had overwhelmingly condemned the Soviet action. Seldom had Muslim sentiment been so aroused, and for the time being the U.S.S.R. clearly had a black eye in this quarter. Whether this would last, or what practical effect it might have, was of course a different question-as we shall see, the facade of Islamic unity was deeply fractured by the end of the year by the war between Iraq and Iran.

As for the second arm of the immediate U.S. policy response, the effort to mount a united Western set of "denial" actions that would inflict pain on the Soviet Union in general terms, it can only be described as an overall failure with at most spotty and uncertain impact. The story is more fully told elsewhere in this issue.1 U.S. grain export limitations were undercut at least during 1980 by increased exports from other countries,2 although they may be more effective, if continued, in the much tighter world grain market that looms in 1981. The U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow attracted many emulators, which, however, did not include several Western allies and key states from Third World areas such as black Africa. The U.S. attempt to limit high-technology exports to the Soviet Union turned into a sieve, in view of the concerns of key NATO countries, notably West Germany and France, to preserve what had become for them ties of great domestic economic importance and symbols of the solid gains that had come in the previous decade from the combination of Ostpolitik and détente in the European framework. Probably no combination of external pressures could have caused the Russians to pull back in Afghanistan. As it turned out, the signal sent to Moscow was at best mixed-a U.S. unilateral response that may have been more decisive than expected, with its impact largely cancelled out by the picture of allied disarray.

Why the disarray? On the face of things Western Europe and Japan, which are much more heavily dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf producers than the United States-11 percent of America's daily oil needs in 1979 compared with 55 percent for Western Europe and 78 percent for Japan-should have been even more concerned over the dramatic Soviet thrust. Yet they demurred to even the limited general sanctions urged and adopted by the United States itself. In part the reasons lay in different perspectives on the significance of détente, both in terms of the overall balance between "cooperation" and "confrontation," and in terms of the specific meaning détente had developed in the 1970s in Europe.

But in part the reasons related to the Middle East itself: ever since 1956 the United States had had to pull the laboring oar for Western policy in the area, and this U.S. "trusteeship" on behalf of its major alliances had seemed to their members to be carried out at best spasmodically and recently with declining effectiveness. Some thought that America should have acted to "stop the rot" earlier, while others were inclined to the view that a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union on the Middle East was possible and desirable, and that the U.S. approach was unduly tinged with military concerns and bad judgment. (As we shall see, specific differences over U.S. mediation of the Arab-Israeli conflict rose to a new height during the year.) Conversely, while Europeans sought to excuse their reluctance to join in general measures by arguing that the basic thrust of the Western response should be "regional," they seemed to U.S. policymakers and to the American public to have little to offer, with the exception of economic aid to Turkey and Pakistan, chiefly from West Germany. The NATO alliance had simply not developed a consensus on handling Middle East problems in the common interest.

The West Europeans did take the lead in putting forward, as early as February, negotiating proposals designed to get the Russians to withdraw from Afghanistan, with provision for some sort of supervision that would restore a genuine local regime. The Islamic Conference also tried to initiate exploratory talks toward what presumably would have been a similar end. French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in May, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in June, attempted to raise the matter directly with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, but in all cases the result was a resounding rebuff.

The reason was obvious. The new Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan bore the heavy onus of its Soviet origin and proved totally unable to exercise any kind of authority.

From birth, it had not been not much of a regime. Taraki and his hatchet man, Amin, almost immediately after seizing power in Kabul in April 1978, had tried to rush the pace of communization in an illiterate, tribal, multi-ethnic society which in the past was held together by monarchs of local origin who came to symbolize such unity as they were able to achieve without homogenizing the culture and centralizing governance. By "suppressing" the rural landlords in the valleys, the tribal khans in the hills, and the urban "exploiters," Taraki and Amin were erasing the established lines of access from the central government to the local pockets of legitimate authority before structuring operative replacements.

Besides, the PDPA (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan), the title taken by the Afghan communist party, had become faction-ridden soon after its formation in the mid-1960s. The PDPA consisted primarily of two groups, the Khalq and the Parcham. As Khalqis, Taraki and Amin shared the usurped power only with their factional colleagues. And they sent Karmal, the leading Parchami, into diplomatic exile in Czechoslovakia. The Russians tried to restore the integrity of the PDPA by gluing the two factions together; the externally built coalition, however, did not stick. Palpably feeling more secure with fellow Parchamis, Karmal in the summer of 1980 purged many Khalqis from top ministerial, bureaucratic and military posts. By then, all uncertainty about the Russians' success in legitimating their own retainer had vanished. Instead, the Afghan communists, or Marxists, to use their own label, as would-be rulers could not stop quarreling or halt the Afghan Army's further decline, and thus compelled the Russians to take over virtually total responsibility for running and pacifying the country.

With helicopters and a full panoply of twentieth-century paraphernalia, the Russians can penetrate the most remote corners of this landlocked country and flatten villages in otherwise hard-to-reach localities. But if they want to make their influence felt and endure, they have to get down to earth. No one can claim that the Afghan resistance is united. Still, the disunity is not necessarily a source of weakness, as has been contended. If the Russians conclude a deal with one tribe or community, it is not binding on the others and may not even bind the concerned group as a whole. For in the final analysis each village and tribe is striving to stay alive. In the urban areas, there is neither industry nor a solid working class, so that the workers do not lend themselves to stable organization. In a word, by endeavoring prematurely to legitimate new local leaders and institutions, the Soviet Union has been finishing the job begun by Taraki and Amin of pulverizing the society. To reintegrate it along lines more familiar to the Soviet Union would probably take a generation or more, if the Russians should persist in the experiment despite the denunciation by the international community.

In short, from the Soviet standpoint there was simply no prospect that if the Red Army withdrew there would be anything but a dramatic outpouring of anti-Soviet feeling within Afghanistan. The result might be a period of political chaos; in any event the Russians could have no hope of leaving behind an acceptable, coherent regime.

Thus, there seemed no way out for the U.S.S.R. The more historically minded of Soviet leaders may have recalled that in the mid-nineteenth century it took Russia 25 years to pacify the much smaller mountainous area of Daghistan in the Caucasus. While the present Soviet force has vastly greater manpower and sophisticated equipment, the problem remains one of subjugation and overall control that may indeed take years.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think of Afghanistan as a Soviet Vietnam-a comparison occasionally voiced in the media. The Afghan rebels have only limited arms, largely acquired from a disintegrating Afghan Army-which by the end of 1980 was estimated at no more than 30 percent of its already reduced strength at the start of the year-and any prospect of the rebels receiving from outside sources the kind of special defensive equipment that could be highly useful (such as anti-aircraft weapons capable of dealing with helicopter gunships) seemed remote. Whatever countries sympathetic to the rebel cause (including the United States) might be attempting to do through clandestine channels, any significant flow of such weapons to the rebels had to go through Pakistan, and the Pakistani government of General Zia was unprepared to jeopardize its own security by allowing such a flow. In the course of the year the Russians kept up a drumfire of veiled threats against Pakistan, and on at least one occasion conducted a raid into the refugee area in the Northwest Frontier Province. If Pakistan were to become an effective military base for the rebels, its leaders (and others) saw the strong possibility that Soviet forces might move down the Khyber Pass and occupy at least part of Pakistan-an action which might complete the disintegration of a Zia regime already shaky and in danger of collapsing for internal reasons.

So the prospects on the ground at the end of 1980 were grim. The Russians were far from pacifying the country, yet they seemed likely to persist in their pulverization of the Afghan society, largely out of sight of the world and with only occasional reliable reports, all of which underlined the relentlessness of Soviet operations.


In the most dramatic single act of the Administration's response to the crisis, President Carter in his January 1980 State of the Union speech elaborated upon the strategic threat to the United States and its industrial allies posed by the Soviet aggression and military presence in Afghanistan. Making it emphatically clear that the United States would not accept that action, he went on to state:

Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

But how could the President give teeth to what at once became known as the Carter Doctrine? In essence, a similar position had been stated by President Eisenhower in 1957 in relation mostly to the areas bordering on the Mediterranean. But U.S. military power there was then clearly preponderant vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and in 1958-in the only military action taken under the Eisenhower Doctrine-U.S. forces landing in Lebanon to stabilize the political situation were unopposed.

The area of the Gulf had always been a different story. There and in the Indian Ocean, U.S. forces up to 1979 had remained at a low level even after the British withdrawal. U.S. strategic nuclear superiority was the ultimate guarantor, it may be argued, against any Soviet thrust directed at Iran or Pakistan, or the areas around and beyond them, but even that superiority was now replaced by an overall situation of nuclear parity, so that the picture of a United States that could be all-powerful in a real crunch was dimmed. In terms of conventional forces the problem was what it had always been for Britain vis-à-vis imperial Russia in the nineteenth century-the area lay close to Russia, while the United States was essentially a peripheral power in military terms, compelled to bring forces from a distance and in any circumstances hard put to maintain them at great strength unless it enjoyed a firm local presence or at least ready access to local areas for military needs.

The problem had been perceived by U.S. strategists, and others, well before 1980. When the Iranian Revolution had eliminated Iran as a stabilizing power in the Gulf, and in specific response to a brief invasion of North Yemen from Soviet-oriented South Yemen, the Carter Administration early in 1979 sent major aid to North Yemen via Saudi Arabia and deployed a carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean, expanding the naval and air base at Diego Garcia for the purpose. Some steps were also taken to build up U.S. airlift, sealift and prepositioning capabilities, and there was repeated discussion, in and out of government, of the need for a force earmarked for Middle East contingencies and capable of being deployed there rapidly.

The Afghan crisis and the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine led to immediate expectations that these efforts would now be redoubled, and the anticipation of major increases in the U.S. defense budget, for these and other purposes, played a role in the surge of inflationary expectations of early 1980.3 In the event the overall defense increase was limited to only about five percent (in real terms), and it quickly became apparent that it would take three to five years to build up a major intervention capability in conventional forces.

But the Administration did move (belatedly, in the view of its critics) to establish a Rapid Deployment Force headquarters, and the units from the four services on which the RDF might call were being brought to high readiness. In more immediate terms U.S. Navy strength on station in the Indian Ocean was further increased by the end of the year to more than 30 vessels built around two aircraft-carrier battle groups with full complements of fighter, attack, antisubmarine and reconnaissance aircraft, and an assault team of Marines. The extent of present U.S. deployment capability of ground forces, according to one authoritative Pentagon statement, was limited to putting 25,000 men on the ground and sustaining them for four weeks, and it was repeatedly stressed in military circles that such a force could be effective even in local crises only if it arrived at once and thus tended to preempt the situation. Against the contingency of any Soviet ground thrust it would only be a trip-wire invoking the strategic nuclear threat-or so it seemed to most observers.

If, however, the United States was able to rely on local military facilities, then its ability to deploy substantial air power, as well as ground forces, would be greatly augmented, so that with the major naval and naval air forces already deployed there would indeed be a substantial U.S. military presence, or immediate capacity to bring military force to bear. So the second arm of the U.S. effort during 1980 was a diplomatic effort to develop relationships with states in the general region that would assure such facilities for present use or at least in the event of need.

Here the degree of success achieved was at most limited. One ideal basing area, Israel (specifically the Negev), had to be excluded for political reasons: it was felt that any direct American association with Israel, for area security purposes, would set up such hostile reactions in the Arab world as to be counterproductive. A second, Saudi Arabia, was unwilling to provide facilities in present circumstances; while the Saudi rulers welcomed U.S. supplies for their own armed forces and the new signs of U.S. resolve, they were not yet prepared to take the risks of regional or possible internal disruption, or externally supported subversion, they felt would go with this degree of direct association with U.S. military forces. Nor had they forgotten that past American utterances, notably early in 1975, had suggested that such forces might be used in (and, as they tended to see it, against) Saudi Arabia itself to prevent any interruption in the oil flow. Finally, at least one Arab state newly powerful in the Gulf area at least until the start of the local war in September 1980, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, remained bitterly critical of American support for Israel and kept up a determined effort of long standing to discourage Gulf states from cooperating with the United States.

Nevertheless, the United States concluded in mid-1980 agreements with Oman for naval and Air Force access to facilities on Masirah Island and on the Arabian mainland. The Air Force will have use of fields at Thamarit (in the westernmost province of Dhufar) as well as on Masirah Island (in the Arabian Sea) while the Navy will be able to call at Mina Qabus (near Muscat) and Mina Rasyut (southeast of Salalah).

In addition, along the African shores of the Indian Ocean, the United States was able to reach agreement for the limited naval use of the port of Mombasa in Kenya, and for the use of both naval and air facilities in Somalia, including the onetime Soviet installations at Berbera. But Somali President Siad Barre continued to press for large-scale American military supplies, with the possibility that he might use these to renew Somali guerrilla efforts in the disputed Ogaden area. Any revival of the 1977-78 hostilities there, in which Ethiopia had won out with Soviet support and the participation of Cuban forces, seemed a serious risk to take.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the ever-resolute Anwar Sadat in Egypt moved to support the U.S. effort in substantial ways. While not prepared to grant formal U.S. use of Egyptian military facilities on a permanent basis, Sadat cooperated in extensive maneuvers by U.S. ground forces in December in the Egyptian desert and permitted the "practice" use of airfields by the U.S. Air Force.

All in all, U.S. capabilities and the U.S. military presence in and next to the Gulf area were significantly expanded during the year. But the political underpinning necessarily remained limited.

Partly because of the problem of U.S. association with Israel, partly because of doubts about U.S. consistency of purpose, but even more because they did not wish to be drawn into a new and much more acute superpower rivalry, many of the key states in the area held themselves aloof, while others, notably Iraq and the members of the Arab Steadfastness and Confrontation Front, were totally hostile to U.S. intervention. By the end of the year influential voices in the United States were urging that the threat of Soviet control of the West's oil supply was so grave that it called for putting the Middle East on a par with the NATO area as a U.S. commitment.4 But much of the area simply did not see matters in this light, or if leaders did perceive a grave Soviet threat, they were not capable of creating any meaningful regional grouping to counter it, or inclined to align themselves formally, or through concrete measures, with the United States.

While the invasion of Afghanistan undoubtedly did severe damage to the Soviet Union's image among Islamic countries (as well as to its self-cultivated image in the Third World as the champion of anticolonialism), this was to a considerable extent offset, at least initially, by the picture of Soviet ruthlessness and determination there. The sense of potentially overwhelming conventional Soviet military power continues to overhang the Middle East. The case of Ethiopia in 1977-78 has dramatically demonstrated the new Soviet capability to lift and support substantial forces over long distances.

But just how much the invasion of Afghanistan has added to the Soviet military threat remains problematical. If the Kremlin ever managed to impose a puppet regime there, it would have at its free disposal airfields and bases for ground forces that might add significantly to Soviet strength and tip the region's superpower military balance. But even such use, while possible through naked force, might be hampered by continued local resistance. In addition, the picture of the Soviet Union's inability to pacify a country of probably no more than 14 million people even with the 80-90,000 Red Army troops now deployed there, could over time tend to diminish the image of Soviet power as overwhelming. Moreover, security planners in Moscow can scarcely have welcomed the rising American military profile in and around the Middle East, especially in the Indian Ocean, backed up by a resurrected strategy of containment supported by a widening American consensus.

In political terms, the Soviet Union has been no more successful than the United States in shaping durable ties to Middle East states. In the decade just ending, witness the change in the international alignment of Egypt, Sudan and Somalia, and the cooling friendship with Iraq. The Soviet hold over South Yemen, and the ties it has formed with Libya, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are undoubtedly short-term assets, especially for disruptive purposes, but each also contains the possibility of longer term complications.

There can be no question that the superpower rivalry in the Middle East has become much more acute in the past year. The possibility of the superpowers being drawn into some internal upheaval or regional conflict represents what is certainly the gravest threat of major war anywhere in the world today.


One of the questions repeatedly raised about the Carter Doctrine was whether it could or should be applied in the event of internal convulsions or intra-regional conflict, which might in practical terms involve a serious threat to the flow of vital oil supplies to Western countries and indeed to much of the rest of the world. As it turned out, the first major event after the enunciation of the Doctrine was a case of genuine intra-regional conflict that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had any significant part in instigating and that did have an immediate significant impact on the oil flow.

Iran appears to have been the provoker and Iraq the aggressor in the undeclared war between the two countries which broke out in September 1980, following nearly a year of border skirmishing and interference in each other's internal affairs. Islamic Republicans in Iran, even before consolidating their political power, began trying to export their revolution to the neighboring Arab states of the Persian Gulf, by appealing to the local Shi'i communities to overthrow their Sunni rulers. In Iraq, the estimated seven million Shi'is, concentrated in the southern provinces, represented a majority of the population. In the Shi'i districts are located the shrine cities of Karbala, less than 50 miles southwest of Baghdad, and al-Najaf, less than 90 miles due south of the capital. These shrine cities are of great importance to the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran, and one must assume that their propaganda appeals before the war may have been aimed, in part, at the "recovery" of the two cities. The Imam also had a personal score to settle. He had lived for nearly a decade and a half in exile at Najaf under the "godless" rule of the Ba'thi regime at Baghdad, which had concluded a deal in 1975 with the Shah. His expulsion to France in 1978, in fact, came at the Shah's request.

The Iraqi point of view, the run-up to war, and the course of the war up to mid-November as seen from Baghdad have been fully described in a recent article in this journal.5 In essence, Saddam Hussein, who had consolidated his control over the Iraqi government in mid-1979, felt a continuing threat from the meddling of the Iranian revolutionaries and developed his own implacable hostility to the Imam. An ambitious man, Saddam Hussein was seeking to have Iraq replace Iran as the preponderant power in the Gulf and replace Egypt-now isolated among most Arab states because of its peace with Israel-as the leader of the Arab world. There is also evidence that he was unhappy with the 1975 settlement of the borderline in the Shatt al Arab estuary, which had been moved from the Iranian side of the waterway to the thalweg (or center line), in partial return for the Shah's ending support for the draining Kurdish insurrection in Iraq. Saddam Hussein in the fall of 1980 also assumed that Iran would be a pushover, with its armed forces in disarray and without supplies for nearly two years and with internal problems among the ethnic, linguistic and non-Shi'i communities that seemed to threaten the country with disintegration. He expected specifically that the Arabs of Khuzistan-which Iraqis called Arabistan-would flock to the Iraqi banner.

In the initial phases, the Iraqi armed forces-well supplied over the years by the Soviet Union and latterly by France-did make significant territorial gains in Khuzistan, capturing or investing Khurramshar and the oil center at Abadan, and threatening the capital of the province, Ahwaz. But by December the war appeared to have become a stalemate, with Iranian regular forces and the irregular Pasdaran (or guards) putting up unexpectedly strong resistance. Iraqi expectations of an Iranian collapse were confounded; on the contrary, the Iraqi invasion of Khuzistan recalled to life a significant part of the ex-Shah's armed forces, with adequate arms and spare parts for an attritional war. The resuscitation of the armed forces, as the war unfolded, created a potential new center of power, which President Bani-Sadr in his role as Commander-in-Chief was using as a counterpoise to the religious establishment dominated through the Islamic Republican Party headed by the Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti. In January 1981 Beheshti seemed to be striking back by trying to transform the revolutionary militia into the republic's new army. Thus, attempts were made to issue to the Pasdaran artillery and other heavy weapons for the first time, despite the opposition of Bani-Sadr and the regular armed forces. The outcome of the domestic political rivalry would depend on the outcome of the war. In the case of defeat, the religious establishment could be counted on to blame the President and his new-found allies.

Although there are indications of continued or renewed fighting in Kurdish areas, most of the oppositional communities-Arabs, Baluch, Turkmans-rallied to the defense of the country's integrity against the alien aggressor, giving the republic a greater inner sense of unity than at any time since the spring of 1979. Even the Arabs of Khuzistan, on the whole, seemed resistant to accepting Iraqi leadership in view of the depressed status of the Shi'is in Iraq.

Thus, even before the onset of the rainy season at the end of 1980, the war had settled down to one of attrition. Neither side had committed its forces in full. They were engaged essentially in 9-to-5 artillery exchanges, occasional air sorties, and rare naval action. On the present scale of hostilities, the war could continue well into 1981 even without major resupply: the Iranians have been making belated discovery of a growing number of the ex-Shah's military cupboards and have been receiving a trickle of parts and ammunition airlifted from North Korea and according to rumors directly from the U.S.S.R.; and the Iraqis have been replenishing their substantial arsenal (largely built up in the year before the outbreak of war) through continuing large-scale imports.

The prospects for any negotiated settlement seemed utterly remote. Iraq was determined to obtain at least a readjustment of the Shatt al Arab boundary and the Iranian regime insisted on the total evacuation of Iranian territory before there might be even side a start of negotiations.

Even though this was an attritional war, it was also a savage one. Each side aimed to destroy the other's oil industry. They targeted oil fields, pipelines, refineries, petrochemical industries and export terminals. It is still too early to assess the extent of the damage and how long it might take to repair the facilities. Nonetheless it is clear from the rationing of fuel that both sides have suffered major problems of supply and internal distribution. Even more serious is the economic chaos, perhaps greater in Iran than Iraq at the moment, but serious enough to both sides.

If the war had occurred in a region remote from international interests, the world might have sat back with the feeling that the two sides might slug it out and that they probably deserved each other. But this is an area of vital economic interest to the West and of central strategic importance to the Soviet Union. Therefore the war impacted immediately on the interested regional and international powers, enhancing their anxiety.

One of the first effects was on the volume of oil flowing from the two countries themselves. Iran, after the overthrow of the Shah, had cut back its production from close to 6.0 million barrels per day to less than 1.5 MBD. Meanwhile, Iraq's output was approaching 4.0 MBD by the eve of the war. The total amount both countries were exporting by mid-summer 1980 ranged between 3.5 and 4.0 MBD. The loss of this oil to the international market affected immediately the major importers from Iraq-Brazil (49 percent of its total imports), France (24 percent), Australia (14 percent), and Japan (10 percent)-and the international market generally because the shortfall had to be made up and adjustments reached on sharing the available crude.

Thus by the end of 1980 the tightened oil market had produced a new surge in the oil prices charged by all OPEC countries. Iran's own exports had been reduced to a trickle, and although Iraq in November briefly resumed shipments through Turkey and Syria, the Iranian destruction of a major pumping station in Kirkuk in December again cut off the flow of Iraqi oil almost completely. The oil market had to take into account the lively possibility that further attacks would occur in the future.

As for the superpowers, the Soviet Union had little leverage in the Gulf or with the belligerents. It was in treaty relationship with Iraq, admittedly, but those relations had been steadily cooling, as President Saddam Hussein sought to diversify Iraq's external relations in the region and beyond. Although the Soviet Union kept up a flow of civilian supplies to Iraq, and also apparently furnished limited quantities of spare parts, it sought to balance these actions by reassurances of friendly relations with Iran and by arranging, as we have seen, for the shipment of some military supplies.

For its part, the United States had diplomatic relations with neither belligerent. Yet its influence in the Gulf still overtopped that of any other power. The United States therefore took initiatives to insulate the hostilities and keep the neighboring states from entanglement.

Specifically, in the early stages, there were fears that Iran might lash out against the smaller states in the Gulf-which were generally supporting Iraq-or that the fighting might spread so as to threaten the safety of oil tankers moving from the rest of the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States acted to meet the first of these fears by agreeing to Saudi Arabia's request to send four AWACS (Air Warning and Control System) aircraft designed to detect hostile air incursions into the Gulf. In response to the fear of a tanker interruption, the United States and other Western powers moved quietly, on the basis of bilateral consultations, to beef up their naval forces "over the horizon" from the Gulf.

In the event neither fear materialized. Iran's attacks on other Arab states were limited to occasional warning flights over Kuwait, while the 20-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz-difficult in any event for a Gulf state to shut-remained open.

As of early 1981, the danger of the war spreading seems to have receded. Nor does it now appear likely that in its present form it might engage the superpowers. Each continues to seek to balance its relationships with both sides, and it now appears that any U.S. agreement with Iran for the release of the hostages may not include the transfer of military equipment previously bought and paid for under the Shah. Over time, Iraq and Iran may seek to expand their external sources of military supply, and there may be pressure on such states as France (which had developed a strong position in Iraq), with the possibility that if either side should obtain access to major new supplies the other would seek balancing supplies from others. But in the absence of a major development of this sort, the war seems likely simply to grind on indecisively.

In the process, however, the war has opened up or widened many of the existing divisions among the states of the area, as well as creating new divisions. In particular, it immediately fractured the tightest coalition of recent years in the Arab world-the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front, which had led the struggle against the Camp David accords. Syria had fallen out with Iraq when Saddam Hussein seized power in the summer of 1979. Syria therefore, with Libya in tow, at once openly announced its support of Iran, nonetheless allowing oil to flow through the Syrian branch of Iraq's pipeline system whenever it was functioning. South Yemen quietly but firmly aligned itself with Iraq. Algeria, like the PLO but less frantically, has sought to remain neutral.

The rest of the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Arab states, fear any spread in the fighting, but are motivated by anger over the Iranian revolutionary propaganda to the Shi'i communities in their countries. Hence, they endorsed the Iraqi position but wish to avoid being drawn into the war, even though they are willing to offer silent help. The most firmly committed to Iraq is Jordan, which is far less vulnerable than the Gulf states to Iranian retaliation. Jordan therefore made available to Iraq facilities for parking military planes and especially port and trucking services for imports via a newly built trans-desert "highway" connecting 'Aqabah and Basrah.

The shattering of Arab unity made it unlikely that the Arab League would be able to help mediate the dispute. Neither could the Islamic Conference be expected to serve as an effective mediator, because the present President of the Conference is General Zia ul-Haq, who is not popular among the Iranian revolutionaries.

Moreover, the war is already profoundly disturbing the internal situations in both belligerent countries, and to some extent their superpower relationships. Although the Soviet Union has sought to remain neutral, the distance between itself and Iraq has widened since the outbreak of war. Saddam Hussein, who eliminated leading communists soon after his ascent to the presidency, and who in any case has been trying to build up new relationships with the Arab monarchies, does not commend himself to an early restoration of intimacy. Meanwhile, Iran has not warmed up. The Imam continues to inveigh against "the lesser Satan," as he has designated the U.S.S.R., as well as the United States, with equally hostile rhetoric. While the communist urban guerrillas, known as the Fadiayan-i Khalq, or People's Commandos, appear to have been one of the first war casualties in domestic politics, the Tudeh (or Communist) Party, presumably on instructions from Moscow, continued giving unqualified endorsement to the Imam's pronouncements, even after the outbreak of the war. The Kremlin, clearly, must hope to cash in its dividends, if and when Iran may become desperate.

It is still premature to judge the long-term consequences. The longer the war lasts, the more extensive the economic and physical damage to both sides-to the oil industries of both countries, to public morale and to political leadership. There is evidence of increasing disillusionment among the Shi'i in Iraq on the wisdom of the war. As the majority, they might become troublesome. In Iran there is evidence of a continuing struggle for power within the religious establishment and between it and aspiring lay leaders. In any case, even public opposition to the Islamic leadership has become somewhat more assertive. There are no signs, in mid-January 1981, of how the war might be halted.


As if American policy did not have enough to deal with in relation to the hostage issue, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, giving substance to the Carter Doctrine, and doing what it could to limit the war between Iraq and Iran, the year saw no letup in the pressures to produce progress toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The results were mixed. Peace between Israel and Egypt went forward on schedule, but American mediation of the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza-the second part of the Camp David agreements of September 1978-could not meet the original deadline of May 1980, and at the end of the year the core issues seemed as intractable as at the beginning.

Egypt and Israel honored with studied precision the formal commitments made in the bilateral peace treaty of March 1979. As laid down in a protocol, Israel completed the phased return to Egypt of the western Sinai by January 1980. The interim withdrawal, as it was designated, narrowed Israel's zone of occupation to the eastern third of the peninsula, from which it does not have to retire until April 1982.

On normalization, which entered into effect on the completion of the interim withdrawal, the Israelis were impatient and the Egyptians cautious. Early in February 1980, the Egyptian Parliament passed a law lifting the economic boycott of Israel. At the end of the month the two governments exchanged embassies and consulates, and a few days later inaugurated a reciprocal but modest commercial air service. Israel's naval patrol boats paid occasional courtesy calls at Port Said and Alexandria, and newspapers sent journalists on special or more sustained assignments to each other's country, moving more prominently from Israel to Egypt than the reverse. Arabic publications from Egypt became available in Jerusalem; English-language Israeli publications, in Cairo.

At times, when a treaty clause could not be executed for reasons beyond the signatories' control, Sadat and Begin improvised. The withdrawal and security protocol, for example, laid down that U.N. forces and observers would supervise Israel's evacuation in stages from Sinai. Under pressure from the Arab and Soviet bloc opponents, the General Assembly disapproved the Egyptian-Israel treaty and Camp David process and thus disqualified the United Nations as a participant. The parties prevailed upon the United States to expand the role of the Sinai Support Mission, originally set up in 1975, to inspect compliance with the terms of the treaty, and Egypt and Israel supplemented this observer task with their own Joint Commission of military officers. Another difficulty arose over a provision in the normalization protocol for the construction of a highway linking Egypt and Jordan. On the refusal of Jordan to enter into the negotiating process, Egypt and Israel in April 1980 opened a road between Egypt and the West Bank via the Gaza Strip.

On a state visit to Cairo in October 1980, Yitzhak Navon, Israel's president, reached an informal understanding with President Sadat to open the Sinai road to Israel, supplementing air and sea routes already in use, and to encourage the development of cultural exchanges. But the Egyptian response to the provision expressing "the desirability of cultural exchanges in all fields" was sluggish, probably reflecting the fear of personal blacklisting threatened by those Arab governments which rejected the peace.

In the execution of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, the United States played a declining role, offering its support only when requested. In the negotiations on Palestine autonomy, however, the United States had pledged that "it would participate fully in all stages of negotiations," since on this subject both parties spoke daggers. The Egyptian side was determined to keep a linkage between the peace with Israel and the search, through the Camp David process, for an agreed plan on autonomy that would unfold by stages into full self-government for the Palestinians. This inclination was reinforced by sensitivity to charges by other Arab states that, in reaching a separate peace with Israel, Egypt had broken Arab solidarity and betrayed the Palestinians. With security, the uppermost considerations of all Israelis, the Begin coalition government fused ideology. The amalgam led Israel to resort to every device to decouple the execution of the peace treaty and the autonomy talks.

Israel's autonomy proposal, from which the agenda for the negotiations derived, was severely limited. The evolution into a state of the projected Palestinian "self-governing authority (administrative council)" was wholly excluded. The mere discussion by the administrative councillors of such a plan would constitute grounds for the reintroduction of Israeli military rule and the arrest of those who might advocate statehood. Moreover, the Begin government declared that it would grant autonomy, not to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but to their population. This was another way of saying that it had no intention of abandoning its claims to sovereignty over the two occupied territories, that is, to the entire area of the Palestine mandate or what the governing coalition members called western Eretz Israel. Israel also left no doubt that it would continue to exercise final responsibility for security in the envisaged autonomous zone.

The scheme was wholly unattractive to Palestinians of every stripe, even those who may still have hesitated to accept the leadership of the PLO as then constituted. It also left no room for serious negotiations. Every item on the agenda framed by the Egyptian and Israeli teams with the assistance of Ambassador Sol Linowitz, the American negotiator-security, land, water, the powers of the self-governing authority, and elections to it-related intimately to the final settlement of the Palestine question. Were the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to constitute a sovereign entity or be absorbed as an autonomous entity by Jordan or Israel or both? On this question, Begin and Sadat could not agree at Camp David in 1978. If they had not decided deliberately to defer the decision to a later date, there would have been no accord on a framework for peace.

They did not address this question, for it was out of bounds; and therefore they did not address the question of Jerusalem either, since its future in any agreement would depend on the nature of the overall settlement into which that city would have to be fitted. With no common vision or common goals, the negotiators were condemned, by the dictates of domestic politics in Egypt and Israel, to circular talks, since there was no way of narrowing the gap between them.

Secretary of State Edmund Muskie reported in June 1980 that the parties had reached "nearly complete" agreement on the modalities of the projected elections. The only sticking point, he observed, was the question of the participation of the Arabs of East Jerusalem, on which Egypt insisted but which Israel inflexibly resisted to escape weakening its claim to sovereignty over the united city.

Divisions on all the remaining agenda items ran just as deep. On security, Israel demanded full and permanent responsibility in Judea and Samaria-the Israeli code for the West Bank-and in the Gaza Strip, for defense against "external attack, whether by conventional armed forces or by terrorist groups." The Egyptian delegation held out, no less firmly, for a local police force (as stipulated at Camp David) that could "assume its fair share of the burden for internal security and public order." The land issue, in the view of the American negotiators, could be solved only if Israel were prepared to "assure the sanctity of private property in the West Bank and Gaza" and to guarantee that the use of public land in the five-year transition following the creation of the self-governing authority would "not prejudice future negotiations on the final status of these territories." However, the Begin government's refusal to suspend its erection of new Jewish settlements, especially in the West Bank, foreclosed any meeting of minds. The Egyptians charged Israel with trying to create faits accomplis before the transfer of authority to the Palestinians. The Begin government and its supporters argued, in their own defense, that the founding of new settlements was no more than an assertion of Israel's rights.

On the primary issue of defining the powers of the self-governing authority in the projected five-year transition, the delegates agreed that "most matters touching daily lives of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza will be under Palestinian control when the self-governing authority is established." But they could hardly be expected to discover a formula that would at one and the same time meet Israel's demand that the Palestine authority could never develop into anything more than an administrative body, and Egypt's that the authority should be vested with "full powers of self-governance."

As the President's personal agent, Linowitz shuttled back and forth between the United States and the Middle East, and in the Middle East between Egypt and Israel, keeping Jordan and Saudi Arabia-as potential (or at least hoped-for) partners in the diplomatic consortium-informed. Under the other pressures that beset President Carter, including the election campaign, he would probably have been hard put in any event to play the kind of personal role he had in 1978; he did use his credit with Sadat on occasion to keep the process going, but the negotiations never reached a point where it seemed likely that agreement could be achieved in a summit or any other forum. The negotiators spent their time, to the degree that it could be done usefully, identifying and clarifying the issues, so that at the turn of 1981 they at least had taken measure of the essential issues in any effort to reach a final solution, whenever it might become possible to agree on its contours.

Meanwhile, the Camp Davidites were buffeted by all the implacable foes of the process. With the support of the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front (Algeria, Libya, Syria, and South Yemen) to which the PLO belonged, it stepped up its acts of terrorism against the West Bankers and Gaza residents suspected of collaborating with the occupying authorities and against Jewish settlers. This tactic invited counterterrorism by vigilantes organized by religious zealots calling themselves the Gush Emunim and by other splinter groups that were springing up in response to the challenge. The PLO guerrilla and artillery assaults on Jewish villages in the Galilee led to counterattacks by Israel's armed forces on PLO camps in southern Lebanon suspected of mounting the violence. The Steadfasters, moreover, sponsored a crusade to isolate Egypt as well as Israel in the international community.

To this end, the PLO ground out a steady stream of resolutions, sponsored by Third World countries at the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly and in the specialized agencies. They called for the establishment of a Palestine state and condemned Israel for its counterterrorism, for founding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and for declaring undivided Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

On March 1, 1980 the United States joined the other members of the U.N. Security Council in unanimously passing a PLO-inspired resolution calling upon Israel "to dismantle the existing settlements and in particular to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem." Two days later the White House issued a statement in effect repudiating the American vote on the ground that the resolution had been approved with the understanding that all references to Jerusalem would be deleted, and attributed the error to a "failure" in communications. Both sides were offended, and the impact on American and European opinion was especially severe.

Late in July a comparable resolution, also derived from the PLO, won the endorsement of the U.N. General Assembly. The latest resolution, like those that preceded and followed, reaffirmed the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, to establish an "independent sovereign state" and to participate "in all efforts, deliberations and conferences on the question of Palestine"; it also called upon Israel to withdraw from all Arab territories occupied since June 1967, including Jerusalem, before mid-November 1980.

The PLO initiatives stirred the Israeli hard-liners to counteraction. On the day following the General Assembly decision, the Knesset approved a hard-liner bill declaring "united Jerusalem" the capital of Israel and assuring the free "access of the religious communities to places holy to them." The action of the Israeli hard-liners was no less mischievous than that of the Arabs, and the U.N. General Assembly followed with two resolutions declaring Israel's action "invalid" and calling upon it "to rescind all measures already taken and desist forthwith from taking any action which would alter the status of Jerusalem."

The Steadfasters hardly needed encouragement, but they could, as recipients of Soviet military, economic and technical aid, count on Moscow's support at the United Nations and its specialized agencies. By casting their ballot in favor of the redundant resolutions, the Russians were venting their spleen over their exclusion from the peace-seeking process, to which as a global power they felt entitled. The Kremlin in 1980 gave material assistance, including the transfer of weapons, to the PLO and Syria, and with the latter in October concluded a treaty of friendship-all designed among other purposes to strengthen the Russian claim to shared sponsorship of the Arab-Israeli peace-seeking process. Egypt and Israel were the only regional countries engaged in the peace process, and neither expressed confidence in the U.S.S.R. as a suitable cosponsor.

The PLO had received observer status at the U.N. in 1974 on the strength of the growing recognition accorded to it, by the Arab states, the Soviet bloc, and increasingly by Third World countries. Exasperated with what they perceived as the inflexibility of the Begin government in the autonomy talks and with its settlements and Jerusalem policies, and animated by desire to court the Arab oil states, even many non-communist countries of Europe, notably Austria and members of the European Economic Community, formally recognized the PLO in 1980. Moreover, at its summit meeting in Venice in June, the EEC adopted a declaration setting forth its own "initiative," recommending a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace-seeking process to replace, without expressly saying so, the incremental approach of the United States. The statement reaffirmed Israel's right to existence and security "within secure, recognized and guaranteed borders" and went on to endorse "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people," the full exercise of "its right of self-determination," and the association of the PLO with the peace negotiations.

The EEC declaration angered the Israelis without satisfying the Arabs, because it fell short of formal group recognition of the PLO and of an explicit endorsement of a Palestine state. The European "initiative" in 1980 remained at best no more than promissory, but it reflected once again the deep misgivings of America's European allies about the inability of successive American administrations to achieve peace-a failure they tended to attribute to the influence of pro-Israeli groups within the United States. Yet the European posture completely excludes Europe from any effective influence on Israel, and unless European overtures and diplomacy should somehow persuade the PLO to recognize formally and persuasively Israel's right to exist, it is hard to see what the Europeans are achieving except some political credit with the Arab side.

As for the parties themselves, Sadat still seemed in firm control in Egypt at the end of the year, and his efforts to present himself as the man of peace were increasingly effective in the United States. But he continues to pay a heavy price in terms of the hostility of most Arab states, and even the large-scale American assistance he now receives has not enabled him measurably to ease the pressing economic problems his country faces.

The price at home was also high for Begin. The Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were growing more and more assertive and restive, as their ties to the PLO drew closer. There was a danger that the security problem could get out of hand; this time it would be a domestic, not a regional, threat. Inflation was truly running away. The year started with a rate of perhaps 110 to 120 percent; by the start of 1981 it had already exceeded 130 percent and was still climbing. The harder Begin strived to keep his rickety government together, the weaker its influence. It sought safety by withdrawing progressively into itself, becoming steadily more hawkish. Although the Begin government did manage to hold together through 1980, in mid-January 1981 the defection of one supporting party seemed to mean that new elections would be held in the spring of 1981, some months before the legal expiry date in the fall. All the polls still suggested that the opposition Labor Party would win handily, and late in December the Labor Party had finally approved Shimon Peres as its leader, thus potentially restoring unity in its ranks.

The circular exchanges in the stalemated autonomy talks were irritating and discouraging to the concerned diplomats and public. But the Carter Administration's midwifery had at least brought forth an Egyptian-Israeli peace which, fragile as it was, appeared at the close of 1980 to be consolidating, against all regional and international odds. There seems little prospect of broadening the peace in the foreseeable future, so long as the superpowers are ranged on opposing sides of the Arab-Israel dispute, and the U.S.S.R. fails to take appropriate measures to mend its relations with Israel and Egypt. The United States and the Soviet Union, pulling together, might conceivably be able to persuade Israel and the PLO to turn away from their politics of mutual destruction, for only mutual recognition can break the vicious circle. But the superpowers themselves, as we have seen, are engaged in the same brand of mutual politics across the region.


If 1980 was a dismaying year in the Middle East, the dangers it revealed and reflected loom even more disturbing into the future. Superpower rivalry threatening to run out of control, continued erosion of U.S. leadership in the postwar alliance structure of the West, and the world's dependence on the oil of the area-all these underline the perils of an area that remains inherently unstable and prone to regional conflict and internal upheavals.

The immediate problems faced by the Reagan Administration are grave enough. Even if the hostage issue can be resolved soon, the internal political convulsions that have played such a key role in it will go on, and their outcome will be a major determinant of the shape of the area. For any outsider to seek to influence what emerges would entail high risk. Certainly the United States will do well if it can again have normal relations with Iran, on what will necessarily be a cool and correct basis at best. But if the Soviet Union should succumb to the temptation to meddle more deeply in Iran (as it already seems to have begun to do) it could bring on a crisis more serious than anything so far.

In Afghanistan, the ball is clearly in the Soviet court. If the Russians should become directly embroiled in Poland, they will be carrying not one but two heavy burdens, and it is conceivable that they might wish to let the lesser of the two, which is surely Afghanistan, go for the time being. But this is only a remote prospect. In the meantime there is little possibility that Pakistan can be persuaded to permit greater outside aid to the rebels.

As for the Gulf itself, the events of the year have demonstrated once again that oil supplies, and thus oil prices, seem to be at the mercy less of economic decisions than of political events. There is no way for Western Europe, Japan, or the developing countries to reduce their dependence on Middle East oil. But if the United States could do so, surely an achievable objective over the next five to ten years, the effect on U.S. prestige and capacity to act in the area would be considerable. Again, no outsider can prevent convulsion or conflict, but it will be supremely important to limit the consequences.

For this purpose alone the United States surely needs to rebuild, as a matter of utmost urgency, a genuine common approach to the area with its European allies and Japan. The unique American involvement with Israel presents inescapable difficulties toward which the Europeans could be more helpful than they have been. Elsewhere it is probably more healthy to have a variety of Western interests and ties represented, provided-and it is an enormously difficult condition to achieve-Western nations can learn to act at least in parallel and not for illusory short-term national advantage. Perhaps the hostage issue in Iran-with its traumatic impact on American public opinion-was bound to be especially disruptive for allied relationships. But the divergence over Afghanistan had deep roots. Indeed, ever since the 1973 War the United States and Western Europe have been on different tracks in the area. The common posture adopted in the Iraq-Iran war must now be extended to the much tougher issues that might arise at any time.

But it is above all the acuteness of superpower rivalry in the area that carries with it the constant danger of a major confrontation or outright conflict. For 35 years the United States and the Soviet Union have vied for position in the Middle East. It is fair to claim that the U.S. objective has all along been a durable regional state system in which all members are guided by common rules of state performance and in which they participate for their mutual benefit, and that Soviet actions have often been, and remain, opportunistic, seeking to weaken American influence and build up its own. Recently, it has been promoting communist regimes, called Marxist possibly to allay the fears of the non-communist world, but actually under effective Soviet control. Now, even if the Soviet Union does not soon become a net importer of oil, the temptation for it to seek influence over major oil producers may be strong because of the immense leverage such influence would give the U.S.S.R. over Western Europe and Japan.

So the short-term situation is highly perilous. But as with other postwar situations of Soviet threat, there is no chance of Soviet behavior moderating unless the Kremlin sees that it cannot succeed. To this end the strengthening of the U.S. military posture now underway is essential, and with it every possible political effort to help the states of the area stabilize their own internal situations and learn to work together. If there are to be confrontations, the United States should have not only military parity, in all dimensions, but the strongest possible political support within the area and with its allies, to meet them effectively.

But in the longer term what is needed is a transformation of the international system in the Middle East, looking away from the cold war-that is, mutually destructive competition-to real, not spurious, détente, which as shown has never been tried in the Middle East. What the terms of such a real détente in the Middle East might require can only be sketched. Certainly they should include equitable commercial access to the oil of the area for all consuming countries, including the Soviet bloc. But the corollary must be an understanding that neither superpower (or any other outside nation) will seek its own exclusive preserves. Any concept of agreed spheres of influence (of the sort exemplified in Iran before World War I, when it was in effect divided into British and Soviet spheres) is both illusory and bound to produce conflict. The only long-term system must be one in which the states of the area stand on their own.

At best, if we are lucky, it will take no less than a decade to reach such an arrangement, and probably much longer. Both parties will have to address their mutual irritants and remove them, abandon old habits and develop new ones, and strive to frame, if not common goals, at least agreed rules of behavior.

Such a stable international system in the Middle East need not be utopian. It may not appear a likely achievement even in the present century. But without such a positive long-term objective we shall all continue as prisoners to the consequences of our lost opportunities.

1 See especially the articles by George Ball, Robert Kaiser and André Fontaine.

3 See the article by Messrs. Harold van B. Cleveland and Ramachandra Bhagavatula in this issue


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  • J. C. Hurewitz is Professor of Government and Director, Middle East Institute, at Columbia University. He is the author of The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics and other works.
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