How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
Nineteen eighty-four was a year of realignment throughout the Middle East, a year not of the soldier, but of the diplomat and the politician. The war in Lebanon abated; the war in the Persian Gulf sputtered along without clear outcome or design. Syrian’s renewed ascendancy in Lebanon and the continuing threat to the whole region from Iran’s militancy contributed to an intense round of diplomatic maneuver among moderate Arab countries, notably Egypt and Jordan. The United States, extricated from its Lebanese misadventure, helped to limit the Gulf war and provided military support to friendly countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Soviet Union, taking stock of a series of substantial setbacks in the region since 1979, and finding Syria and Libya to be less than reliable partners, was striving to extend its diplomatic influence among those same Arab moderates, either directly or through its only faithful protégé, South Yemen.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran was unwavering in its revolutionary rhetoric and its determination to eliminate domestic rivals such as the Tudeh (Communist) Party. Eager to break the stalemate with Iraq, it periodically threatened to extend the war southward to other Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Yet, in its continuing acute need for earnings from oil exports and for imports of weapons, Teheran felt some incentive to present a more normal diplomatic image to the world at large.
Israel went from war in Lebanon into the most severe economic crisis since the founding of the state. The Israeli system responded to the challenge with the formation of a remarkable, broad national coalition which, if it could endure, held substantial promise of political as well as economic regeneration. And Turkey, well along in its own recovery from an earlier economic and political crisis, reaffirmed its role as America’s oldest ally in the region even as it reached out for closer economic and political relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors.
President Reagan’s September 1982 plan for a West Bank and Gaza settlement "in association with Jordan" had been pushed aside by the year-and-a-half intervention in Lebanon. Yet, given the new diplomatic activity of Jordan, Egypt and others late in 1984, the plan gained new relevance, although it may have to compete, in the years ahead, with the notion of a more comprehensive Middle East peace conference which Moscow launched in mid-1984.
The chain of developments released in 1984 could lead to polarization or rapprochement, depending on the skill of the players in the Middle East, Moscow and Washington, and on the inevitable accidents of the interplay among them. On the surface, 1984 may seem an unusual year for the Middle East, without major acts of aggression or dramatic peace overtures; without coups, new civil wars or revolutions; without superpower confrontations or global oil crises. Yet new relationships were formed, and new foundations laid, that will decisively shape the Middle Eastern constellation in years to come.
On February 7, 1984, President Reagan announced the withdrawal of the 1,600 U.S. marines from Lebanon—or, as he euphemistically put it, a request to the secretary of defense "to present me with a plan for the redeployment of the Marines from Beirut airport to their ships offshore." Withdrawal was accomplished quickly between February 21 and 26, ending one and a half years of American exposure to guerrilla and terrorist attacks that had claimed the life of 241 marines on October 23, 1983, and, on January 18, 1984, of Dr. Malcolm H. Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut.
The American venture into Lebanon had begun in August 1982 as a classic peacekeeping operation, as multinational (U.S., French, British and Italian) forces secured the departure of Palestine Liberation Organization units within three weeks, and prevented the destruction of the Lebanese capital by the besieging Israelis. But, instead of resolving the internecine Lebanese conflict, the PLO’s departure led to a more intensive round of violence, including the assassination of President Bashir Gemayel, massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps—and the prompt return of the multinational force.
This time Washington defined the mission of the marines, and of U.S. officers attached to the "Lebanese army," with great ambiguity: as one of keeping the peace and supporting the government’s "legitimate" authority. Alas, none of the armed militias (Druze, Shi‘ite and Sunni Muslim, Christian Phalangist and others) acknowledged the government’s legitimacy; units of the Lebanese army quickly defected to the very militias they were ordered to combat. The marines’ own guard duty at Beirut airport became untenable in September 1983, when Israeli forces yielded their position in the Shouf Mountains above to hostile militias, exposing the U.S. force to relentless artillery fire. In sum, the U.S. military in Lebanon found no peace to keep, no legitimate government to support—and no station from which to accomplish bare self-defense.
The longer it lasted, the more the U.S. presence tended to commit American prestige. The typical response among moderate Arabs to the Reagan peace initiative of 1982 was to await the result of Washington’s efforts to secure Israel’s departure from Lebanon, as an earnest of American "credibility." President Reagan himself warned in October 1983 that the presence of the marines was necessary to keep Lebanon out of the hands of the Soviet Union or its "surrogates," and, indeed, was "central to [U.S.] credibility on a global scale."
Throughout its checkered history, Lebanon had enjoyed long intervals of communal peace and commercial prosperity under Ottoman-Turkish and French imperial rule. But how could a temporary force of 1,600 marines impose a new order of legitimacy on armed forces in the tens of thousands? Indeed, the American token presence tended to delay any settlement—as President Amin Gemayel sought to involve the United States on his side, and his opponents, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Shi‘ite leader Nabih Berri, sought to invoke Syrian support and stall the talks until the Americans should have withdrawn.
As negotiations resumed upon the marines’ departure, the Muslim factions withdrew their objections to Gemayel’s presidency, and he, in turn, repudiated the May 1983 peace agreement with Israel on which Secretary of State George Shultz had labored so hard. On April 26, Gemayel appointed to the premiership Rashid Karami, a Sunni leader and close supporter of Syria who had kept aloof from the armed factions. Karami assembled a cabinet including the major factional leaders, such as Jumblatt as minister of public works and transport, and Berri as minister for South Lebanon, the increasingly restive Shi‘ite region still under Israeli occupation.
All this was, at best, a tenuous beginning for Lebanese reconciliation. The parliament that reconvened to endorse Karami’s cabinet had been elected in 1972 under a 1943 formula that allotted seats to Christians and Muslims on a six to five ratio and envisaged a Maronite Christian president and a Sunni Muslim premier. That ratio, however, had long since been reversed, and Shi‘ite Muslims now outnumber any other group—so that a revision of the formula is indispensable for any more permanent settlement. In the meantime, however, Lebanese political arrangements must reflect military strengths as well as historical formulas. The PLO, which for a decade had been one of the more redoubtable of the internal forces, had been eliminated by the Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982 and by the intra-PLO fighting and victory of the Syrian-backed minority at Tripoli at the end of 1983. With the voluntary departure of the Americans, a major question for Lebanon in 1984 was to what extent Israel must be reckoned into the power equation.
The answer was that Israel was eager to cut its losses. The replacements of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin (in February and August 1983) implied the disavowal of Sharon’s plans of imposing, in alliance with militant Maronites, a new political structure on all of Lebanon. Meanwhile, the occupation had created a classic colonial-guerrilla situation in South Lebanon, with a network of Shi‘ite terrorists, supported with arms and money from Syria and Iran, exploiting the latent discontent of the population so as to wear down the staying power of the occupiers. Indeed, two years of occupation in the south came to cost the Israeli forces some 300 lives—as many as the initial invasion of Lebanon itself. Prime Minister Shimon Peres left little doubt of his coalition’s determination to withdraw, provided arrangements could be made for the continued security of northern Israel.
Negotiations between Israeli and Lebanese representatives began in November 1984 at the headquarters of the U.N. forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Israel’s major demand was for security arrangements that would prevent a return of PLO units and any resumption of guerrilla incursions into northern Israel—specifically a role not only for UNIFIL but also for its own forces or the "South Lebanese army" (the Christian-Druze auxiliaries Israel had trained since 1978). The representatives of the Gemayel government at first seemed prepared to accept a role for UNIFIL, but soon claimed security as Lebanon’s sovereign prerogative, and, in the face of mounting terrorism in the south, proved increasingly recalcitrant.
The Israelis, in turn, began to wonder whether any withdrawal agreement with Lebanon would not prove as delusory as had the 1983 peace agreement, and whether the time had not come to make their own arrangements—perhaps combined, as in 1978, with a tacit understanding with Syria. Peres remarked wistfully: "It’s hard to negotiate with Syria but easy to have an agreement. With Lebanon, on the contrary, it is easy, even pleasant, to negotiate, but it is hard to have an agreement." In January 1985, the Israeli cabinet finally agreed on a unilateral phased withdrawal from Lebanon.
With the PLO and the Americans gone, and the Israelis leaving, Syria, the last outsider on the Lebanese scene, could afford to play a slow waiting game. Caution was further indicated by the preoccupation in Damascus with an impending succession struggle—ever since President Hafez al-Assad’s hospitalization in November 1983 with a heart ailment. In late February, the president’s brother, General Rifaat al-Assad, massed troops under his command near the capital, only to find himself opposed by troops under two rival generals belonging, like the Assads, to Syria’s dominant Alawite Muslim minority. By late May, President Assad found an occasion to dispatch all three contenders abroad on diplomatic missions that amounted to temporary and honorable exile, and to restore his government to some kind of normalcy before Rifaat’s return in November.
Karami’s appointment as premier marked the reestablishment of Syria’s ascendancy in Lebanon; yet the seven years of civil war prior to Israel’s invasion had shown the precariousness of the shifting alliances among the armed factions through which Damascus chose to exercise its hegemony. On the wider Arab scene, the eclipse of Arafat’s PLO gave some plausibility to Syrian claims to leadership in Arab opposition to Israel—and hence to a veto over any future peace negotiations.
The war in the Persian-Arabian Gulf remained stalemated as it entered its fifth year. Early in 1984, Iraq repelled a massive attack in the southern sector near Basra by untrained Iranians, many of them teenage volunteers—in part by the use of poison gas and in part by inundating the marshes. A subsequent Iraqi counteroffensive was equally indecisive. There was a similar standoff in the intense propaganda war. Baghdad had initially claimed that the Arab-speaking population of Khuzistan was eager for "liberation," or that military pressure would over-throw Iran’s fragile revolution; and Teheran had made the counterclaim that Iraq’s Shi‘ite -Arab masses were ready to shake off the yoke of that "infidel" Sunni, Saddam Hussein.
In sober fact, just as the war itself favored the defense, so the war effort helped in the political consolidation of both regimes. Saddam long ago had ruthlessly eliminated overt opposition in Iraq (except for sporadic disaffection in the Kurdish north), yet had done more than any predecessor for the social integration of the Shi‘ite majority. Similarly, in Iran, the Khomeini regime had succeeded in rallying clerics, army and bureaucracy to the common defense, and in eliminating or reducing such persistent rivals as the Tudeh Party and the radical Shi‘ite Mujahedeen, or "Holy Warriors." (In January 1984, 87 Tudeh leaders were given life sentences, as trials of lesser party figures continued.)
In the quest for foreign support and weapons, Iraq soon gained the edge. Although the war had cut its oil exports by more than half, Iraq could draw on financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. In 1983, France had furnished Iraq with a fleet of Super-Etendard fighter planes equipped with Exocet missiles; and the Soviet Union had resumed its military deliveries, including a large consignment of tanks. In December 1984, the United States, while emphasizing its continued neutrality in the war, resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq after a 17-year hiatus. Iran, by contrast, was increasingly reduced to relying on the world commercial market in second-hand arms.
Iraq’s new arsenal prompted Baghdad to extend military operations to the Gulf itself, but the sea and air warfare turned out to be as inconclusive as the land operations. Thus Iraq was unable to enforce a blockade of Iran’s oil export terminal at Kharg Island which it had announced in February 1984. Throughout the summer, Iraq damaged a number of tankers using the Iranian route, but Iran protected its oil purchasers by rebating its price to cover war insurance premiums and replacing lost cargoes. When Iran launched its own aerial attack on Saudi oil facilities, in June 1984, Saudi jet fighters immediately repelled the attack, with the help of AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes from the U.S. Air Force.
Iran’s willingness to bear heavy casualties and Iraq’s supply of foreign weapons seemed to guarantee continuing deadlock—nor were Iran under Khomeini and Iraq under Saddam ready to end the war by negotiation. Teheran had proclaimed its readiness for a cease-fire around population centers in February 1984, after massive Iraqi attacks on border towns in the central sector. In response, Iraq, through intermediaries, proposed a cessation of hostilities on the basis of the status quo ante. Iran countered that no negotiations were possible until the disappearance of the "treacherous" Saddam regime. This intransigence reflected not only resentment at Iraq’s unprovoked attack of 1980, but also intensely ideological and personal factors: the gross anomaly, in the eyes of Iranian Shi‘ites, of a Sunni regime in control of the holiest Shi‘ite shrines in Iraq, and Khomeini’s grudge against the Baghdad regime from his years of Iraqi exile.
It was the good luck of oil-importing countries that the continuing Iraq-Iran war only marginally affected the aggregate level of Middle East exports—and this at a time when the last price jump of 1979-81, decontrol of oil prices in the United States and a lingering world recession had sharply reduced global demand. Similarly, the repeated alarums of disruption of Gulf oil exports came at a time when spare capacity in many exporting countries had already forced a reduction of the standard price of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries from $34 to $29 a barrel (in April 1983) and continued to put downward pressure on that price.
In 1984, oil production in the Gulf countries as a whole was virtually unchanged from 1983. For OPEC and the non-communist world it was slightly higher—due to increases mainly in the North Sea and Nigeria. By the autumn of 1984, Nigeria, whose oil was in direct competition with that from the North Sea and whose government was in a major payments crisis, refused to be bound by the OPEC quota it had agreed to in 1983. One unexpected complication was the agreement which the Saudis had concluded during the summer of 1984 (apparently over oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki al-Yamani’s objection) to barter some 30 million barrels of crude oil against aircraft and engines for its air force—thus throwing the equivalent of about one week’s Saudi production on the volatile spot market. The net result was one of considerable downward pressure in that market in the fall of 1984.
In a series of intense meetings, OPEC ministers reaffirmed the $29 price and reduced their production targets from the earlier OPEC-wide production ceiling of 17.5 million barrels a day to 16 million. And, in contrast to Nigeria’s determination to market a maximum amount of oil regardless of quotas, Mexico and Egypt, oil exporters outside OPEC, agreed not to increase their production during this temporary softening of prices. The widely appreciated lesson of 1983 was that price cuts, far from stimulating additional sales, would only cut further into income. By the end of 1984, it appeared that the seasonal tightening of prices during the winter might enable OPEC to weather yet another potential price crisis.
Similar minor crises were likely to follow in the years ahead, with downward price pressures perhaps to be aggravated when Iraq completes its new pipelines, or if Iraq and Iran ever settle their war. By the 1990s, however, declining production in the continental United States and perhaps in the North Sea, and increasing demand in response to global economic expansion seem likely to firm up prices, and perhaps create renewed upward pressures.
The continued stalemate in the Gulf and the easing of the Lebanese crisis marked a change in the regional power configuration, which in turn prompted a realignment on the inter-Arab diplomatic scene that could prove as significant as those which accompanied Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s shift from Moscow to Washington in 1972 or his peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Iraq had been closely aligned with Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s, vocal in its stand against Israel, an active claimant to Arab leadership, and a recurrent threat to its immediate Arab neighbors. That threat disappeared in 1980-81 with the stark failure of Saddam’s aggression against Iran; instead there now loomed the far more ominous danger of a victory by Iranian revolutionary forces. The logical response of threatened Gulf monarchies was to extend financial, commercial and military aid to prevent an Iraqi defeat—and for Iraq gratefully to accept such conservative Arab support.
The outcome in Lebanon had eliminated the PLO as a military force, diminished any threat from Israel to its Arab neighbors, and left Syria as the potentially hegemonic power over Lebanon. Syria, in effect, replaced Israel as the most immediate threat to the region’s fragile balance. Thus, Arab moderates such as Egypt and Jordan were drawn together into exploring ways of moving toward an Arab-Israeli settlement. The closer they moved, the more starkly Syria and Libya—with their overt sympathies for Iran and their close relations with Moscow—stood out as the exceptions.
Since his accession in 1981, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had maintained Sadat’s policy of close relations with the United States while adopting a somewhat cooler attitude toward Israel. Thus Cairo tenaciously pursued a minor territorial dispute that the peace treaty with Israel had left unresolved, and, following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador. At home, Mubarak moved against the more corrupt members of Sadat’s family and entourage, and toward a reconciliation with moderate opposition forces. Mubarak is not given to Sadat’s rambling oratory or the gratuitously insulting remarks that had so antagonized the Saudis and other Arab leaders. The Gulf war gave Egypt the opportunity to join in support of the beleaguered regime in Baghdad, and thus to break out of the isolation imposed on it by the Arab League in 1979.
In 1984, Mubarak began to reap the rewards of his new course. He received a visitor from the royal house of Saud in January, the first such Saudi visit in seven years. Later that month, the Islamic Conference Organization invited Egypt to rejoin, and Cairo did so while reiterating its respect for prior diplomatic commitments—that is, the treaty with Israel. Diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were resumed in April, and with Jordan in September; Mubarak and King Hussein exchanged visits of state before year’s end. At home, Egyptian assembly elections in May allowed more scope for moderate opposition groups like the New Wafd Party, giving Mubarak a much broader popular mandate than his predecessors.
Toward the United States, Mubarak continued Sadat’s policy of expanding air and naval facilities for possible U.S. use, and made it clear that he would not hesitate to call for limited U.S. military help. Specifically, following the Libyan air raid on the Sudanese city of Omdurman in mid-March, Egypt requested and received the temporary dispatch of American AWACS planes to discourage further attacks. And in the summer Egypt joined with Saudi Arabia in calling for the assistance of U.S. and other Western naval units in a prolonged, though in the end fruitless, search for mines (presumably also laid by Libya) in the Red Sea.
Egypt under Sadat had abandoned Nasser’s pan-Arab ambitions, restored pride by launching the 1973 war, traded peace for territory with Israel and replaced Cairo’s Soviet alliance with one with Washington. While maintaining all those gains of the Sadat period, Mubarak was well on the way to repairing the damage to Egypt’s relations with other Arab countries—thus confirming Egypt’s new course of pro-Western and broad-ranging multilateral relation.
As quietly, and perhaps more ambitiously, King Hussein launched a more active diplomacy in 1984 than Jordan had pursued in decades. For Amman as for Cairo, the protracted Gulf war served to repair relations with Baghdad: indeed, with Iraq cut off from access to the Gulf, the obvious alternative route for trade and military supplies became that via Egypt’s Suez Canal, Jordan’s port of Aqaba, and into Iraq by truck. Plans were devised to build a pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba (and possibly another to link up with the Saudi east-west pipeline) to supplement Iraq’s only other operational pipeline through eastern Turkey.
Jordan had been envisaged as central to Arab-Israeli diplomacy by President Reagan’s September 1982 proposal for self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan. The Begin government, to be sure, had rejected the Reagan initiative out of hand, and the Arab League’s "Fahd Plan" had insisted, somewhat ritually, on a return to the pre-1967 borders and an independent Palestinian state. But the Israeli invasion of Lebanon postponed any serious peace efforts, and on the West Bank itself fear was growing that time was running out for any negotiated settlement.
King Hussein made use of the Lebanese interlude to test the ground on the Arab side. His first efforts to formulate a joint position with the PLO in 1983 were frustrated by Yasir Arafat’s unwillingness to face down the dissidents in the organization. By the end of 1983, however, Arafat’s break with the radicals had become final, and the PLO had lost its last independent military base. Arafat’s response was to emphasize diplomacy; even during the 1982 siege of Beirut, the PLO had indicated its readiness to proceed to "recognition" of Israel on a "reciprocal" basis; and, during Arafat’s visit to Cairo in December 1983, Egypt urged him to form a Palestinian government-in-exile.
It was at this juncture, on January 9, 1984, that King Hussein decided to reconvene, after a ten-year lapse, Jordan’s parliament, to hold special elections to fill vacancies that had occurred among both East and West Bank representatives, and to enlarge the activities of the Ministry for Occupied Territories. The inclusion of West Bank delegates disregarded the Arab League’s 1974 decision designating the PLO as the Palestinians’ "sole legitimate representative." Earlier, in addressing the European Parliament in December 1983, the king had stressed that the incorporation of the West Bank into his grandfather’s kingdom in 1950 had been not an annexation but a step "based on self-determination and the expression of free will." In the newly convened parliament, the king once again called on the PLO to join him in developing a "practical framework" for peace negotiations. A later contretemps in U.S.-Jordanian relations, which prompted Hussein publicly to doubt Washington’s "credibility," may have been a welcome means of enhancing his own credibility in the eyes of Arab critics.
Hussein’s immediate aim was to strengthen Jordan’s connections with the residents of the occupied West Bank, and to have the voice of those same residents fully heard within the PLO. This, in turn, would lay the basis for a common front under his own leadership which might push the central Palestinian aspect of the Arab-Israeli dispute to a diplomatic resolution. And the long-term solution envisaged would seem to be a variation of Reagan’s proposal for Palestinian self-determination in association with Jordan—specifically, a federation under the Hashemite dynasty.
In November 1984, Arafat accepted Hussein’s invitation to convene the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s closest equivalent to a parliament-in-exile, in Amman. In their addresses, each leader emphasized his own divergent views for the record—Hussein invoking U.N. Resolution 242, with its demand for the return of territories occupied in 1967, and Arafat emphasizing the PLO’s claim to be the sole legitimate spokesman for the Palestinians. Yet the mere fact that the meeting was held in Amman signalled Arafat’s willingness to align himself with Jordan for the diplomatic campaign ahead.
In the "Black September" of 1970, the PLO had been expelled from Jordan by force. Now it was peacefully reconvening in Jordan’s capital, with security assured by the king’s men. The PNC reelected Arafat to the PLO leadership and elected two former West Bank mayors to its executive committee, effecting just the kind of PLO-West Bank rapprochement for which the king was hoping. (One of the two former mayors, Fahad Kawasmeh of Hebron, was assassinated in Amman a month later, presumably by pro-Syrian PLO dissidents, indicating the extent to which the PLO’s terrorism now had turned inward.)
The PNC’s proceedings, through the medium of Jordanian television, attracted a record viewership in the occupied West Bank a few miles across the Jordan Valley (and, for that matter, in Israel)—displaying the PLO in a parliamentary rather than a guerrilla capacity. Despite the subsequent assassination, the meeting, in sum, marked a crucial step in advancing Hussein’s diplomatic strategy.
There was no indication by year’s end of how soon Jordan and the PLO would be able to reconcile their remaining differences in formulating a negotiating position—or whether Israel’s precarious coalition would be amenable to any sort of negotiations. Meanwhile, Hussein and Arafat (as well as Mubarak) shared a common interest in overcoming the ingrained practice of making all decisions at Arab meetings by unanimous "consensus," thus conferring veto power on dissidents such as Syria, Libya, South Yemen or the Syrian-backed minority in the PLO. Arafat’s decision to convene the PNC in Amman on the basis of a mere quorum, rather than full attendance, was a precedent for acting by majority rather than unanimity. And if the same practice should be transferred to meetings of the Arab League, it seemed likely that Egypt would be readmitted as a member in good standing, and that previous resolutions on the Palestinian question might be modified by majority endorsement of any negotiating position jointly worked out by Jordan and the Palestinians in the PLO or the West Bank and Gaza.
Curiously enough, the Soviet Union made its own contribution to the new inter-Arab climate of reconciliation. After the abject defeat of Syria’s Soviet-built air force in combat with Israel over Lebanon in 1982, Moscow strove to restore its military prestige by reequipping Syria with more up-to-date aircraft and the latest air defenses complete with Soviet crews. The newly concluded friendship treaty with Syria served as explicit warning to Israel not to proceed to any aerial attack over Syrian, as distinct from Lebanese, territory. Yet the strengthening of Syria’s defenses did not make the Assad regime any more subservient to Moscow. Specifically, the battle around Tripoli late in 1983, in which Syria used Soviet weapons to defeat Soviet-equipped PLO forces, caused intense discomfort in Moscow.
Moscow also saw Libya’s President Muammar al-Qaddafi as an unreliable ally. The air raid on Omdurman and the mining of the Red Sea (also widely attributed to Libya) had the undesired effect of bringing U.S. air and naval units, by Arab request, onto the scene.
Other recent events had contributed to Moscow’s acute sense of isolation. The Arabs were loud in condemnation of Soviet actions in Afghanistan (among the most outspoken was Iraq, previously considered one of Moscow’s closest allies). Iran was systematically prosecuting local communists, and military victory over opposing guerrilla forces in Afghanistan remained elusive.
Moscow responded to these setbacks by mounting a quiet but concerted diplomatic campaign. Diplomatic relations with Egypt were restored, and there were offers of military assistance to Kuwait and Jordan. In March 1984, the Soviets announced their intention of rebuilding the Iraqi nuclear reactor that Israel had destroyed in 1980. And South Yemen—long the Middle East country most closely under Soviet control—took the initiative in October 1983 of restoring diplomatic relations with the neighboring, pro-Western Sultanate of Oman after a decade and a half of intermittent warfare, and then in reconvening a Yemen Council that linked it to Northern Yemen. So, even Moscow’s diplomacy recognized and confirmed the central importance of Arab moderates in the Middle Eastern realignment of 1984.
Israel and Turkey, America’s closest allies in the Middle East, were preoccupied in 1984 with new phases in their respective democratic and economic development.
Israel attempted to disengage from the longest, costliest and most controversial war in its history; its home front succumbed to deepening economic crisis. Inflation was running at about 800 percent late in 1984 and unemployment at a rate (unprecedented for Israel) of seven percent, and the balance of payments registered annual deficits of over $2 billion since 1982.
Meanwhile, general elections on July 23, 1984, and subsequent prolonged negotiations, brought to office a broad coalition, with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres as premier and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir as foreign minister (by an ingenious formula the two agreed to reverse roles two years hence—if the coalition remained in power that long). In the 1984 campaign, Labor had rallied to Peres’ leadership, whereas the struggle between Shamir, Ariel Sharon and David Levy weakened Likud. Labor eked out a lead of 34.9 percent of the vote to 31.4 percent for Likud, translating into 44 seats in the Knesset (parliament) for Labor, 41 for Likud. The results reflected the decline of traditional party loyalties, and the divisive effects of Israel’s electoral system of proportional representation. Of 120 Knesset seats, 35 went to 13 splinter groups, religious and secular, hawkish and dovish.
The formation of the Peres-Shamir coalition was a remarkable way out of this impasse. It turned out that both party leaders preferred to deal with their respective intraparty rivals from the vantage point of government office rather than in opposition. Both Labor and Likud, moreover, agreed that the new government would explore some measures of electoral reform that could strengthen the larger parties and encourage the smaller ones to merge.
In the "National Unity Government" Labor and Likud held 12 ministries each (a total of five being suballocated to smaller parties), and the centrist National Religious Party the 25th. Labor was deserted by its own left wing (with six seats) and an individual member; and, at the end of the year, one of the right-wing religious parties threatened to desert the coalition in a dispute over political patronage.
Nevertheless, the government kept to its word in opening disengagement talks with Lebanon and taking some modest, preliminary measures to fight inflation—with more sweeping measures unlikely until Labor and Likud had confronted one another early in 1985 in the general elections of Histadrut, Israel’s all-encompassing federation of labor.
The Labor-Likud agreement reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the Camp David formula for autonomy for West Bank and Gaza residents, left decisions on new Jewish West Bank settlements to the cabinet majority, and promised that "Israel will call on Jordan to enter into peace negotiations." And soon after his accession, Peres duly proposed a meeting where Jordan and Israel could put forth their views without prior restriction; yet King Hussein made it clear that no such meeting could take place without some preliminary agreement. And, in view of the profound differences between Likud and Labor (and, on the Arab side, among Jordan, the PLO, Syria and others), it would be unrealistic to expect serious Israeli-Jordanian negotiations in the near future.
Whether the Peres-Shamir coalition can live out its four-year term will depend on its success in carrying out such immediate tasks as withdrawal from Lebanon and sweeping and painful measures of economic reform. Among the pressures ahead were the need to define U.S. aid levels for 1985 and 1986, and negotiations on establishing a U.S.-Israeli free trade zone as authorized by Congress during Peres’ visit in October 1984. With Washington facing its own bitter debate about runaway budget deficits, there was little question that Israel would have to take painful austerity measures before expecting any rescue operation from the United States.
Israel embarked in 1984 on a novel political experiment to cope with its economic problems. By contrast, 1984 saw Turkey in an unprecedented economic upswing as it began to sort out some of its remaining political problems.
Turkey’s general election of November 6, 1983, gave a strong popular vote (45.2 percent) and solid parliamentary majority (211 out of 399) to Turgut Özal’s newly founded Motherland Party—and no one symbolized as clearly the profound changes in Turkey as did Prime Minister Özal. Privately a devout Muslim, he appeared in the 1983 campaign as an effective organizer and remarkable television campaigner. By profession he is an engineer, American-trained, who had planned a major hydroelectric dam and risen to become deputy prime minister in charge of Turkey’s plans for recovery from the severe payments crisis of 1978-80. In 1982, entrenched economic interests forced Özal’s removal, yet the 1983 election dramatically reconfirmed the country’s commitment to his free enterprise policies.
Özal’s election victory also served to hasten Turkey’s return from military rule to democracy. After their bloodless coup of September 1980, General Kenan Evren and his colleagues had concentrated on saving the country from the organized terrorism of left and right, which earlier had claimed as many as 30 lives a day. Next, they oversaw the framing of a constitution that would strengthen president and cabinet, revise the electoral system and overcome the political paralysis of the 1970s. A national vote in 1982 endorsed the new constitution, elected Evren to the presidency, and thus registered the population’s overwhelming approval of the military’s performance since 1980.
Nonetheless, Evren’s leadership came under increasing criticism—muted in Turkey and more vocal abroad in such bodies as the European Parliament. For, aside from strengthening constitutional and electoral procedures, the military rulers took it upon themselves to ban all previous parties and their top leaders from political participation; to continue the state of emergency (including military censorship of the press) in key provinces; and to encourage the formation of two new parties with close links to their own regime. It was these newly contrived parties which Özal’s last-minute entry into politics had roundly beaten—the voters registering their support not only for Özal’s innovative economic policies but also for the one party truly independent of the military. And Özal’s victory was reconfirmed by nationwide local elections in February 1984, in which bona fide successors of the traditional parties were again allowed to compete.
Özal’s economic program has been hailed in international financial circles as a model of export-led growth. Inflation, which had exceeded 100 percent in 1980, was cut to around 25 percent; the flow of remittances from Turkish workers in Europe reached an all-time high; and the country was opened wide to foreign investment. Meanwhile, Turkish firms discovered a lucrative market for construction contracts in countries such as Libya and Saudi Arabia; and, through scrupulous neutrality in the Gulf war, Turkey managed to become the leading trade partner of Iraq and Iran alike.
American-Turkish relations, long strained through the Cyprus crisis of 1974 and the subsequent embargo (1975-79) on direct U.S. military aid, improved as a result of Turkey’s continued close military cooperation within NATO and the conclusion of the new U.S.-Turkish Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement of 1980. Modernization of obsolete military equipment received high priority. In eastern Turkey, military airfields are being expanded against a potential Soviet military threat from the Caucasus southward into Iran or toward the Gulf.
In sum, in its economic and cultural orientation, Turkey is living up to its full potential as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. In foreign policy, Turkey continues its role as a staunch ally on NATO’s right flank and a wedge between the Soviet Union and the Arab world, a role infinitely more important to regional security since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. For it is only behind this solid Turkish shield that governments in Damascus, Baghdad or Cairo can lean toward the Soviets one year and toward the West another without incurring the fate of governments in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw or Kabul.
The events of 1984 vividly illustrate the more durable forces on the Middle Eastern political scene: the vast potential for conflict—not just between Arabs and Israelis but throughout the region—and also the stability of frontiers and longevity of regimes, the limited uses of warfare, and the peculiar Middle Eastern logic of alignment and realignment.
While domestic conflict has abated in most countries, the heavy influx of sophisticated weapons from outside the region adds to the lethal potential for external conflict. Almost every Middle Eastern country, with the striking exception of Turkey, is at odds with its neighbors, and therefore eager to be in league with its neighbors once removed. Yet, since the geographic map does not line up in a neat checkerboard pattern, there is much restlessness and ambiguity, and an occasional dramatic switch of sides.
Jordan’s King Hussein and Yasir Arafat of the PLO have proceeded from deadly enmity to wary partnership. Iraq, once the leading "radical" and later the leader of the Muslim world’s condemnation of Soviet actions in Afghanistan, now finds its side in the Gulf war supported, to varying degrees, by Saudis, Jordanians, Soviets and Americans. Syria and Libya are the major recipients of Soviet arms in the Middle East—and the most vocal supporters of the Khomeini revolution, which by 1984 was completing its crackdown on Iranian communists. Earlier, Israel and Syria inflicted, one after the other, their deadly blows on Arafat’s PLO—for which the United States was instrumental in arranging safe passage. In the PLO’s final battle in 1983, both sides used weapons that the Soviets had lavished upon them.
Just as the war effort has helped consolidate the regimes in both Iran and Iraq, so the continuing search for allies on the Middle Eastern checkerboard has a somewhat stabilizing effect throughout the region. Middle Eastern governments are militarily weak and must assure their independence, above all, through diplomatic maneuver; and the resulting rivalries tempt outside powers to join in the play of intrigue with weapons sales, military or economic aid, or diplomatic support. When tensions erupt into war, both regional and outside powers tend to rally to the weaker side while the conflict continues, and against the winner once it is decided.
Middle Easterners, from their intense and recent experience with Western imperialism, are generally suspicious of outside powers—but do rely on them for arms. And in their diplomacy they tend to use the faraway foreigner as a counterweight to the foreigner nearby. This is the obvious reason that the Soviet Union has won more friends in the center and at the southern periphery of the region (Syria, Libya, South Yemen, Ethiopia) than on its own borders—and why the United States, two oceans away and manifestly without designs of conquest, has been so vastly more popular.
In sum, while many Middle Eastern countries individually nurse expansionist or hegemonic ambitions, all of them collectively, by their preference for the weaker side and their readiness to shift alignments regardless of ideology, offer strong support for the status quo. In these and other ways, and behind Turkey’s protective shield, the pattern of hostility, interaction and maneuver thus has its self-balancing features. And the more complete the pattern of contacts, the more complex the interaction, the less it is likely to explode into regional or global confrontation.
The Lebanese and Gulf wars have brought some of the region’s contestants to the sobering realization that military action does not always pay. Menachem Begin had praised the Lebanese campaign as a "war of choice," the kind of war that Israel by preference ought to fight. Yet Sharon had kept the full scope of the war plans from his cabinet colleagues—suggesting his fear that most Israelis would not have made such a choice. In retrospect, the destruction of the PLO’s military base in Lebanon seems a clear gain for Israel—yet the Lebanese war came to cost many more Israeli lives than had terrorist inroads into the Galilee. And the sequel in Lebanon clearly demonstrates that expansion into populated neighboring countries reduces rather than enhances Israel’s security.
Among Arab leaders, Saddam Hussein of Iraq has long since had occasion to rue his wanton attack on Iran. The PLO, evicted from Lebanon, has run out of Arab frontiers from which to stage terrorist attacks into Israel or its occupied territories. Whatever Syria’s ultimate gains in Lebanon, they clearly resulted from the failure, first of Israel and then of the United States, to harmonize political ends with military means. Nor can those Syrian gains be construed as American losses—except by the fanciful notions (recently popular in Washington) that Syria is Moscow’s obedient "surrogate," that it will not encounter the same difficulties in Lebanon as in the mid-1970s, and that a brief and determined American effort could once and for all have transformed Lebanon or banished Syria’s presence.
For a more balanced perspective, it is best to compare the Middle Eastern scene early in 1985 with that of the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, the prevailing Arab attitudes were "rejectionism" (that is, refusal to recognize or deal with Israel), hostility toward the United States and close relations with Moscow—with Egypt, Syria and Iraq vying for leadership of this broad trend. In Libya, Colonel Qaddafi was sharpening OPEC’s confrontation with Western oil interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict had defied all U.N. and American efforts at resolution, and by 1974 the Arab League had recognized the PLO as the "sole legitimate spokesman" for the Palestinians. In Egypt, Nasser in 1970 had invited Soviet antiaircraft batteries with Russian crews to join in his "war of attrition" against Israel. Only Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Arab monarchies remained as presumed friends of the West—and the oil embargo of 1973 threw much doubt on that presumption.
By the late 1970s, Sadat’s break with Moscow and peace with Israel had thoroughly transformed that Middle Eastern constellation; yet the immediate sequel was Egypt’s ostracism by most other Arab countries. And whereas the Iranian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan made the Arab Gulf monarchies feel the acute need for U.S. protection, the fall of the Shah itself and Washington’s bungling of the ensuing hostage crisis put into question the efficacy of such protection.
In 1984, by contrast, pro-Western forces were in the ascendant. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were engaged to varying degrees in military cooperation with the United States, and Washington had resumed full diplomatic relations with all Arab governments except Libya and South Yemen. Meanwhile, the Iranian revolution had demonstrated its evenhanded antagonism toward both Americans and Soviets. And Moscow itself was busily mending its Middle Eastern fences by courting the moderate Arabs.
Washington’s own actions during 1984 acknowledged and reinforced some of these self-adjusting, balancing features of the Middle Eastern scene. With its hands no longer tied and its prestige no longer encumbered in Lebanon, the Reagan Administration was free to respond swiftly when friendly countries asked for help against external attack. President Reagan’s recent actions thus have served as an effective implementation of the Middle East security policies first outlined by President Jimmy Carter. For it was the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, over which Carter labored so hard, that initiated our military cooperation with Egypt, and the Carter Doctrine of January 1980 that proclaimed the Persian Gulf a region of U.S. vital interest to be defended, if necessary, by force.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan lent urgency to Carter’s pronouncement; yet concrete military preparations lagged—as was made embarrassingly obvious by the failure of the hostage rescue mission only three months later—and a U.S. Central Command was not organized until late 1982. Meanwhile, however, further preparations for a Rapid Deployment Force proceeded in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman and elsewhere; the Iraq-Iran war posed a far more immediate threat to the Gulf’s oil than did the Soviets in Afghanistan; and the Arab oil countries responded by rallying in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which by late 1984 proceeded to develop more concrete military plans.
Thus when the Reagan Administration, in the summer of 1984, dispatched AWACS planes to counter Libya’s threat to Egypt and Iran’s attack on Saudi oil installations, it provided a constructive and demonstrative implementation of the Carter Doctrine’s assertion of U.S. vital interest in the Middle East. And the quiet efficacy of those operations is sure to encourage those same and other Middle Easterners to rely on us again in future moments of need.
Washington in 1984 also wisely refrained from hectoring the parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute—yet President Reagan’s call for a solution to the Palestinian problem through some form of Jordanian association remained on the agendas of Jordan, the PLO and even Israel. And if and when the parties directly concerned should be ready to proceed to actual negotiations, there is little doubt that the United States will once again be needed in a mediating and encouraging role—and perhaps to counter rival diplomatic initiatives from Moscow.