Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
Throughout 1978 the Middle East was at or near the top of the Carter Administration's foreign policy agenda. For the first time in 30 years an Arab-Israeli peace settlement - at least a partial one - was a practical possibility once President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 had opened the door. As the year began, it was clear that the parties would need mediation and help to reach the promised land of peace and that the United States, the old friend of Israel and new friend of Egypt, was admirably placed to escort them there. The Soviet Union, on bad terms with both Israel and Egypt, was out of the picture. The signs for productive American diplomacy were favorable.
Not all American interests in the Middle East were wrapped up in the Arab-Israeli question, although Washington tended to give that impression by the time and effort devoted to it. Stability in the Persian Gulf region and access to its oil were of the highest importance from the standpoint of the global balance with the Soviet Union and from that of the economic well-being of the West. Iran and Saudi Arabia had long been regarded by the United States as the keys to protection of those interests. The Shah of Iran and the Saudi royal family had been cooperating with Washington for more than a quarter of a century. These traditional friendly relations, by 1978, were flourishing in the heady atmosphere of expanding trade, grandiose development programs dependent on American technology and management, and large sales of American arms. Soviet influence, except in Iraq, was scarcely to be seen in the Gulf. Here, too, the signs were favorable. Washington was moving confidently forward with its established policies.
For five years the United States had been living off the fruits of the October 1973 War. It may seem strange, but that moment of crisis for the United States, which revealed U.S. vulnerability to the new economic power of OPEC, also left it in a stronger political position than ever before, as it gained new influence in the Arab world without losing its special relationship with Israel, and as it stepped forward as the principal partner in the security and economic development of the oil-producing states of the Gulf. It was not in the nature of the Middle East, however, that these particular circumstances should last. America's destiny in the Middle East must reckon with a changing scene and, as past experience can confirm and as the events of 1978 were to show, is not entirely determined in Washington. It may be affected, more than has been apparent in the past few years, by decisions taken in Moscow. Most of all, it is dependent upon the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics, forces not subject to control by any outside power.
At the end of the year, as these factors came into play, the signs were less favorable. The Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations had not produced a treaty, and on other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict there was no progress at all. What was happening in Iran, even though the Shah's troubles unfolded by gradual stages, had come as a surprise and a shock to Washington. The Middle East seemed to be entering a new phase, to which U.S. policy would find it difficult to adjust.
That perspective provides a basis, a demanding one, for an examination of the year's events. Has surface success only veiled bigger problems? One Camp David agreement, impressive though it was as a diplomatic triumph, was not enough to exorcise the persisting and intractable conflicts bound to make the mediator's lot anything but a happy one. The new wealth and military power of Iran could hardly be a pillar of security in the Gulf if support for the Shah had crumbled at home. Was the firmly knit American position in the Middle East, with Jerusalem, Cairo, Riyadh and Tehran as its nodal points, beginning to unravel?
To deal with 1978 in the Middle East we must first say something about 1977, the first year of the Carter Administration. When it came into office this country was still reaping the benefits of the shift in Egypt's position from ally of the Soviet Union to virtual ally of the United States. Henry Kissinger's step-by-step peace process, however, had run out of steam after the Israeli-Egyptian agreement of September 1975 known as Sinai II, and the new Administration had some old familiar questions to answer as it set about the task of carrying on the effort for peace: whether to try for additional separate bilateral arrangements, or for a comprehensive settlement; whether to call the Geneva Conference into being, or to play a lone hand; whether to tackle the question of Palestine and Palestinian representation head-on, or to go around it; whether to state American views on the terms of settlement, or to hold back; whether to consult with the Russians, or to leave them out.
It was not necessary to make immediate and clear-cut decisions on all those questions, but they could not be indefinitely avoided, and the new team (which on the working level included many of the old hands) did not intend pussyfooting. On the contrary, it was given to speaking out, in fact rather too soon and too often for its own good. But as the strategy unfolded the pattern became clearer. The United States hoisted the banner of a comprehensive settlement because it was apparent that no Arab state was willing to enter into a separate negotiation with Israel. That meant that at some time, presumably soon, there would be a Geneva conference, at least as a means of providing an umbrella under which bilateral negotiations could go forward. A harder question to deal with was whether the Arabs could find sufficient unity to permit them to negotiate at Geneva or anywhere else. Among the necessary parties, in Arab eyes, was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized by the Arab League since the Rabat conference of 1974 as the legitimate representative body of the Arab Palestinians.
It is to the credit of the Carter Administration that it made a serious effort to tackle the Palestinian problem. The President, early in his term, spoke out publicly in favor of a "homeland" for the Palestinians. How much prior thought went into his choice of words, spoken in the course of a folksy town meeting with the people of Clinton, Massachusetts in March 1977, is not a matter of public record, but his use of the same term of art used by Lord Balfour in his pledge to the Jews in 1917, suggesting statehood but not saying it, could not but impress the Arabs favorably as recognition that the Palestinians had a place in the peace settlement and in the making of it. It impressed Israel unfavorably, as might be expected, but Israeli displeasure was tempered by the desire not to alienate its principal ally and supporter at the very beginning of a new administration.
For most of 1977, the United States found itself pursuing a will-o-the-wisp, a formula for Palestinian participation in the peace process that the Arab states and Israel could accept. The chances of finding the road to a broad and genuine Arab-Israeli negotiation did not seem hopeless. Following two years of war in Lebanon in which Arabs were feuding with Arabs, the combination of Syrian military presence there with an Arab League cover, the weakening of the PLO, effective Saudi diplomacy, and acceptance of the situation by Egypt and Jordan made possible a common front that seemed ready for negotiation with Israel - if only the question of Palestinian participation could be resolved. In his swing around Middle Eastern capitals in August, Secretary of State Vance made a valiant attempt to score a breakthrough, but it was not to be. In the end there was no way to bridge the gap between the absolute refusal of the PLO to recognize the existence of Israel or to accept U.N. Resolution 242, the generally accepted basis for negotiation, and the absolute refusal of Israel to recognize or deal with the PLO.
I have dwelt at some length on the Palestinian question because it lies at the heart of the entire Arab-Israeli problem, and American diplomacy in 1977 demonstrated a recognition of that fact. In the new phase that began with Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November, the Palestinian question tended to be dealt with in a different way, rather as a persisting nuisance that had to be coped with somehow but which should not be allowed to close off the promising avenue opened up by Sadat's willingness to negotiate directly with Israel. None of the three parties embarking on the road that led to Camp David, however, could push aside the fundamental issue of the future of the Palestinians, which remained to plague them.
The other principal question evaded by the Sadat initiative and the ensuing negotiations was the place of the U.S.S.R. in the process of an Arab-Israeli settlement and in the maintenance of peace in the Middle East. As the United States has pursued the goal of a settlement over the years, it has been of two minds about Soviet participation, at times seeking a basis of agreement with the Russians on principles and procedures, at other times quite happy to go ahead without them. The practical question was often how much Soviet cooperation was necessary or useful, and how little would be enough.
During the two-year period of Henry Kissinger's diplomacy that followed the October 1973 War, the Soviet Union was virtually shut out of the peacemaking process although it was all going forward nominally within the Geneva framework. Kissinger conferred with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko a few times, but the latter hardly regarded that as adequate consultation, much less participation. When the second Israeli-Egyptian agreement was concluded in 1975, Moscow showed its annoyance by sending no one to be present as co-chairman when the documents were formally signed at Geneva. Soviet pronouncements by that time were denouncing the entire American-managed process of step-by-step negotiation as a manifestation of imperialism and a cynical betrayal by Sadat of the Arab cause. At the same time, the Soviets, whose relations with Egypt were fading fast, were trying their best to stay in the game by providing political support and more arms to Syria and the PLO.
The U.S. government had never repudiated the proposition that the cooperation of the U.S.S.R. would be needed at some stage of the effort for an Arab-Israeli settlement, although as long as American diplomacy could succeed on its own that stage might be postponed indefinitely. With the great difficulty encountered in putting together the Arab side of a negotiation, it might well help to get some cooperation from the Soviets instead of obstruction and sabotage. In mid-1977 the two governments decided to revive the idea of a common approach.
The resulting Soviet-American joint declaration, announced on October 1, 1977, outlined a number of principles and procedures for an Arab-Israeli settlement. In its general thrust it was not very much different from what had been said in the agreed communiqués following the final Nixon-Brezhnev summit meeting at Moscow and the Ford-Brezhnev meeting at Vladivostok, both held in 1974. Those earlier statements had referred to the "legitimate interests" of the Palestinians and had called for negotiation at the Geneva Conference as soon as possible. The 1977 declaration went a bit further, speaking of the "legitimate rights" of the Palestinians, taken by some as code words for a Palestinian state, but in general it was a mixture of points on which both powers made some compromises and refrained from insisting on the totality of their existing positions. The real significance of the declaration lay in the fact that it was negotiated at all and that it was announced at that particular time.
Was it an aberration in American policy or a recognition of reality? From the standpoint of immediate prospects for negotiations, the effects were largely negative, in that the joint statement complicated the Administration's relations with Egypt, with Israel and with portions of the American public. The natural objections of all three to the concessions made and to the idea of bringing the Russians into the picture were compounded by bad timing, insufficient consultation with others, and telltale evidence that a Soviet draft provided the basis for the final text. The Administration, taken aback by the outcry against the declaration, virtually abandoned it, doing nothing to follow up with further consultation with the Russians. But neither was it able to move ahead on its own to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
It was at this point that President Sadat announced his willingness to go anywhere to demonstrate his will to peace, even to the Knesset in Jerusalem. That decision and the visit that followed it took the initiative from Washington and placed it in Cairo and Jerusalem. The United States, though a little surprised, could hardly object. Here was an Arab head of state for the first time about to deal directly with Israel.
The United States was ready to offer mediation as before, and there was little question that American participation would be desired by both sides and would be indispensable to successful negotiation. Yet, in taking up its task, the United States was less free, less master of the agenda, than it had been. It was more closely tied to the policies and fortunes of the principal actors, especially of Sadat, and involved in the politics of the Middle East more deeply than it might wish. Among the casualties of the new situation, as we have seen, were first, the remaining chances for a broader negotiation including representatives who could speak for Arab states other than Egypt and for the Palestinians; and second, the chances that the Soviet Union might play a constructive role. Those chances may have been slight in both cases. It might have been an acceptable price to pay for what the Sadat initiative could accomplish. But those entering the new stage of negotiations would now have to make their way in the certain knowledge that their opponents and detractors in the Arab world and in Moscow would be in a position to exploit the Palestinian issue against them.
When President Sadat made his appeal in Jerusalem for "no more war," the drama of the occasion was overwhelming but also deceptive. Merely by his presence in the capital of Israel, Sadat gave to the Jewish state what its people had wanted for 30 years: acceptance. Thereafter, whatever the immediate consequences, Arab-Israeli relations would never be the same. But Sadat, although he went for Egyptian reasons, by the nature of things had to go also as an Arab leader and to defend the interests of other Arabs. He did so eloquently, pressing their right to recover their occupied territories and the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own, including "Arab (East) Jerusalem," but he did not evoke from Begin a grand gesture comparable to his own. Trouble with his fellow Arabs was then inevitable.
The difficulty of dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, for outsiders as well as for the parties themselves, has always lain as much in the complexities of inter-Arab relations as in the issues between Arabs and Israel. Sadat went to Jerusalem without a mandate to speak for Arabs other than the citizens of his own country. He took this decision on his own, ignoring or contravening the advice of fellow Arab leaders, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia whose support was so important to him. The leaders of Syria and the PLO did not thank him for this defense of their interests but instead denounced him for recognizing and consorting with the enemy before there was any assurance the occupied territories would be returned or Palestinian self-determination realized. This ambiguity in Sadat's position, his endeavor to represent the general Arab cause when the other Arabs were denying him their concurrence and support, having constantly to defend himself against the charge of seeking a separate peace when that was what he indeed appeared to be doing, was to infect the entire course of Israeli-Egyptian negotiations.
For Israel this state of affairs was not particularly troublesome and in some respects was welcome. Sadat's initiative opened the prospect for a peace treaty with the strongest and most important of its Arab neighbors. The questions at issue with Egypt appeared resolvable - even the return of all Sinai territory, if there were adequate safeguards, would not imperil Israel's security - while the same was not true for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and probably not for the Golan Heights. Israel had never regarded the idea of a general negotiation or conference with all its Arab opponents as at all realistic; as a practical matter it would have to go step by step, dealing with individual Arab states in separate negotiations on the particular points to be settled. What was practical also made eminent political sense to the Israeli government, for it offered the possibility of starting the process with Egypt and leaving the more sensitive Palestinian question to a later stage - the later the better. Needless to say, a peace with Egypt would leave Israel in a very favorable military position in relation to its other Arab neighbors.
Sadat was not to be deterred by the vociferous opposition of the "steadfast front" of Arab states that formed against him, although it must have hurt when the relatively moderate Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad chose to join the wild men of Libya and Iraq in the lineup. He was not deterred by the caution of Saudi Arabia (as long as it continued its financial support of the Egyptian economy) or by the reticence of King Hussein, whose delicate position he appreciated. He was fed up with the PLO, which was causing more trouble for Arab governments than for Israel and was now numbering Egyptians among the victims of its terrorist operations. He was prepared to go ahead alone if other Arab states chose not to occupy the empty chairs held ready for them. Egypt wanted peace and would take action to get it. The people of the Arab world supported that course, he maintained, and their governments would eventually do so. Meanwhile, Egypt had enough weight in the Arab world to act alone and had nothing to fear. It would do its best for all Arab interests.
Such was Sadat's reasoning. He was taking risks: the risk of defeat and humiliation if he could not achieve peace with honor, the risk of continued isolation in the Arab world even if he succeeded with Israel. Whatever happened, he would be the target of abuse, possibly a victim of political enemies at home or of an assassin's bullet. The great venture for peace from all indications had the support of the Egyptian people, but it was still a personal venture. The U.S. government and President Carter, in choosing this country's own course, were aware of these risks, which were theirs as well; the entire American effort to bring about a settlement, on which Carter had staked so much of his domestic and international prestige, depended in large measure on Sadat's ability to carry it off. The United States, then, in playing its mediating role, was bound to be extremely sensitive to his problems and his needs.
The negotiations, which we shall not follow in detail here, proved anything but easy. The parties were, presumably, negotiating a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel within the framework of a broader Arab-Israeli settlement. But what kind of framework? This was no Geneva Conference but essentially a bilateral, or trilateral, negotiation. Israel wanted peace with Egypt, whether it was called a separate peace or not. Egypt wanted peace with Israel but could not afford to have it look like a separate peace. The United States, keeping a wary eye on the attitude of Saudi Arabia, tended to agree with the Egyptian position. Consequently, the most difficult problem of all, the disposition of the West Bank and Gaza and the rights of the Palestinians, was back again.
It must be conceded that there was an unreality underlying all of this. Sadat could not really negotiate for the Palestinians or for Jordan, and Begin was not disposed to negotiate at all on the future legal status of what he called Samaria, Judea and Gaza, three lands of Israel. What Sadat needed was agreement on some principles, going beyond U.N. Resolution 242 (which did not even mention the Palestinians by name but only referred to "the refugees"), enabling him to say he had not sold out his brethren by making peace with Israel. How much more than a fig leaf he would need was the question. Unreality or not, it threatened to derail the whole enterprise.
The discussions on an Israeli-Egyptian treaty were not so very difficult or complicated. Israel, it seems, was ready to withdraw from all of Sinai, in stages and with security arrangements, in return for peace and normalization of relations. It was not easy for Israel to give up its settlements and air bases there, and Begin held back on concessions as long as the fur was flying on the issues concerning Palestine.
Prime Minister Begin's response to Sadat's and Carter's call for Israeli flexibility had been his detailed plan for limited autonomy for the Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza, submitted to Washington in December 1977. It was a major effort for Begin, with his profound convictions about historic Jewish rights to those territories, to produce this plan. But to the Americans it seemed inadequate and to Sadat and other Arab leaders no real concession at all, for it promised the Palestinians little more autonomy than they already had and retained Israeli military control with no assurance it would ever end. The plan was unacceptable as a basis for negotiation, and so the parties went on arguing about principles, with Sadat's position the same as before: Israel should accept the principle of total withdrawal.
The United States came up with a new and carefully measured formula: that "there must be a resolution of the Palestine problem in all its aspects; it must recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and enable [them] to participate in the determination of their own future." It was not quite self-determination, although not far from it. Sadat found it satisfactory, but it did not advance the negotiations.
The visits and the exchanges continued; Sadat came to Washington and Begin followed him, but progress was meager, and the hopes and excitement stirred by the Sadat initiative faded. Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon in March and the danger of a clash between Israel and Syria added to Sadat's difficulties. Secretary Vance met with the Foreign Ministers of Israel and Egypt at Leeds Castle near London in July, a meeting seen by many as a last-ditch effort, but it failed to bridge the differences on the West Bank and Gaza. That meeting proved to be the next-to-last ditch, for it was followed by Carter's invitations to Begin and Sadat to come to Camp David. They came; they were subjected to considerable persuasion by the President; they bargained with each other; they made concessions; and they surprised the world by reaching two major agreements.
The Camp David accords, signed on September 17, so exceeded the meeting's expectations and were announced and acclaimed with such fanfare that it is difficult even now to assess them judiciously. What has or has not happened since then may help us to do so.
The two agreements concluded at Camp David are entitled the "Framework for Peace in the Middle East" and "Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel." The latter is relatively simple and straightforward. Most of the points had already been agreed before Camp David. The treaty was to be concluded within three months, and the terms to be implemented in two to three years. The broader and more complex document on peace in the Middle East includes the principles of U.N. Resolution 242 and others talked about over the past few years, plus some quite detailed provisions for the West Bank and Gaza on the formation of an elected self-governing authority, withdrawal of Israeli military government, and eventual negotiations to determine "the final status of the West Bank and Gaza and its relationship with its neighbors." Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and representatives of the Palestinians are to negotiate the agreements covering all the stages of the process. The plan was built on the structure of the Begin plan of the previous December, but with crucial changes introduced by the Americans and in the discussions with Sadat.
According to all the public statements, there were no losers at Camp David. Everybody came out ahead and would benefit from the specifics of the accords and even more from the impetus given to the movement toward peace. But all parties had their unstated but firmly held objectives, and how they would balance out, in the terms of the agreement and in their implementation, was an open question.
Israel gained by having the bilateral treaty with Egypt put on the tracks for rapid conclusion, while the complicated provisions concerning the Palestinians were dependent on future negotiations in which Israel would retain its veto power, although total immobility on Israel's part would hardly be possible. An especially important point for Israel was that the peace treaty with Egypt was not explicitly linked to progress under the other "framework," though, of course, Egypt could simply hold up the peace treaty if not satisfied with progress on other questions, which is exactly what Sadat, as the three-month deadline passed on December 17, decided to do.
As for Egypt's interests, Sadat appeared satisfied with the outcome at Camp David. His most important asset was still the goodwill and support he was getting from the United States. The terms of bilateral peace were satisfactory; Egypt would get back all its territories. The big question was whether the "Framework for Peace in the Middle East" would prove sufficient for Sadat to do what he wished to do for the sake of his own country. What are the prospects for that framework? Here the record of events since Camp David is not encouraging.
The process for comprehensive peace laid out at Camp David depends for its realization on key actors who had no hand in the negotiation. The document itself invites "other parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict" to adhere to it. How real was the hope that they would do so? From the standpoint of Egypt, it depends on whether Sadat looked upon the agreement as a solid basis for settlement, attractive enough to bring the other Arabs in, or basically as a gesture providing political protection for him to go ahead with a separate peace. Perhaps it is little more than a problem of definition. Even those who hold that his consistent aim since the journey to Jerusalem was a separate peace concede that he could not achieve it without something of substance to show for it on other fronts. The heyday of pan-Arabism may have passed, but no Egyptian leader could ignore the connection with the rest of the Arab world.1 The political and cultural ties were not just fiction or propaganda, and it was that connection that brought indispensable financial support from the Arab oil states to keep Egypt's economy going. If the Camp David accords fell short of what Sadat needed to attract the necessary minimum of Arab cooperation, then there was an obvious failure to prepare the ground and some extraordinary miscalculation.
The Carter Administration, which clearly hoped Camp David would start the bandwagon rolling, may be charged with the same miscalculation, although there were extenuating circumstances. The Camp David accords were made possible only by extensive and exhausting diplomatic efforts. The result was in doubt until the last weekend of the ten-day session. There was no time for key leaders not present, such as Jordan's King Hussein or Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd, to be fully informed, to weigh the issues and to give their views. Those who made the agreement had to trust their own judgment, taking their chances on its reception.
The reaction of the radical Arab states, not slow in coming, was entirely negative. Syria, which had gone unmentioned in the Camp David framework except for the brief reference to certain principles and provisions agreed upon between Egypt and Israel as being applicable to peace treaties between Israel and each of its Arab neighbors, was still allied with Libya, Algeria and Iraq in denouncing Sadat, Begin and Carter, and all their works. Jordan was not willing to commit itself in the absence of any commitment by Israel that the West Bank would ever be returned to Arab sovereignty. Saudi Arabia was discreetly silent. The PLO, of course, was totally hostile. Thus, so far as the lineup on the Arab side was concerned, the Camp David accords appeared to have changed nothing. Sadat, for all his tough bargaining with Israel and the support he had from the United States, was still close to isolation in the Arab world.
The United States, after its Herculean efforts toward the goal of a comprehensive peace, was nettled by the disappointing Arab reaction. American diplomats undertook a campaign to sell the Camp David agreement on its merits, to elicit enough cooperation to give the plan for the West Bank and Gaza at least a decent chance for success. Hussein, if he could not be persuaded to join in, might at least refrain from putting obstacles in the way. If local Palestinian leaders would cooperate, the plan might go ahead in the West Bank and Gaza without any governmental participation or support on the Arab side other than Egypt's. But that would be hard going. Assistant Secretary Harold Saunders' attempts to convince West Bank notables raised considerable dust in U.S.-Israeli relations without scoring much success in luring them into cooperation. There is a crucial point here that goes to the essence of the Camp David accords and their implementation: it is whether the provisions on Palestinian autonomy, if put in train, will lead inevitably to real self-determination and thus to a Palestinian state. That was the argument that might make Camp David palatable to the Palestinians and other Arabs. But that was precisely the final result that Israel was determined to avoid, as its actions after Camp David, on the matter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, for example, made crystal clear.
At year's end the treaty between Israel and Egypt was still unsigned. There remained a few points which in the American view were eminently subject to compromise, but compromise did not come easily, for behind the problem of finding acceptable wording lurked issues of fundamental importance to both sides: for Israel, security; for Egypt, relations with the rest of the Arab world. The two major points had to do with (a) the connection between the peace treaty and progress toward Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, and (b) the relation of Egyptian obligations under the peace treaty to obligations under other treaties such as the Arab Collective Security Pact. Was a peace treaty worth much to Israel if it did not ensure that Egypt would stay out of a new war on the Syrian front? Or if it left the attainment of a real state of peace with Egypt, for which the Sinai would be given up, at the mercy of some timetable for elections or autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza? Was a treaty worth much to Egypt if it appeared to be abandoning all solidarity with the Arab world? The moderate Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, had just taken the unexpected step of meeting with the rejectionists, at Baghdad in November, to voice their disapproval of Sadat's course. He could not ignore it. He was ready for peace with Israel, but not for what would be taken as an alliance with Israel against the other Arab states.
The significance of a formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt should not be underestimated. It could be a political and military fact of considerable weight. But whether the treaty is concluded or not, the immediate prospect is not one of tranquility. The United States, after producing its diplomatic miracle at Camp David, will have to face the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a new phase that will generate new crises and require new strategies. A new round of war is not on the horizon, if only because of the disparity in military power between Israel and her Arab enemies on the Eastern front, but then, neither is the comprehensive peace that the Carter Administration hoped to achieve. The Arab world may well relapse into a new stage of internecine struggle and violence, not only in the conflict between Egypt and the others but in a state of general radicalization and instability growing out of persistent problems such as the future of Lebanon and of the Palestinians. The Palestinian question, unresolvable under the Camp David formula if the Palestinians themselves and those who support or fear them do not accept it, will remain, as will the PLO and its acts of violence and terror.
One could ask whether the entire year of political and diplomatic activity spent in pursuit of Sadat's initiative was not directed to the periphery rather than to the core of the Arab-Israeli problem, which is Palestine. True, the marathon negotiations with Begin and Sadat have been mostly about the Arab Palestinians, but they have not been with the Palestinians nor with Arab states more closely concerned with the Palestinians than Egypt is. The problem may have to be attacked again from the start - and that, after all the effort and the expenditure of political capital with Egypt and Israel, is a daunting prospect. There are limits to what an American government can do in exerting pressure on Israel, and yet any serious attempt to resolve the Palestine question cannot succeed unless and until Israel is prepared to give up the West Bank and to accept a compromise on Jerusalem. Such an attempt would put a far greater strain on relations with Israel than any Administration has been prepared to contemplate.
The importance Washington ascribed to an Arab-Israeli settlement was based on the conviction that the United States needs stability in the Middle East in order to avoid a new round of war that could be worse than that of 1973, to build up solid relations with the oil producers of the Persian Gulf ensuring access to oil at bearable prices, and to close off opportunities for the Soviets to establish military or political positions damaging to Western interests. The mere listing of those objectives makes the point that Saudi Arabia is of paramount importance to the United States by virtue of its vast resources of oil, its financial power, its influence on other Arab states, and its opposition to Soviet expansion. It is not surprising that from 1973 onward both the Nixon-Ford and the Carter Administrations gave special attention to cultivating the best possible relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis in turn used their unique power in OPEC to keep the price of oil down, and supported Sadat's turn from Russia toward America. Thus, when the Saudi government decided to make its request to buy F-15 aircraft a test of America's friendship, the Carter Administration got the message.
The way in which the Administration handled the Saudi request in the spring of 1978, linking the proposed deliveries with others to Egypt and to Israel, and wrapping them all in a single package on which Congress could vote only as a whole, was a new and complex chapter in domestic politics, in which the Administration and its supporters in the Congress took on the hitherto unbeatable "Jewish lobby" and won. The intensity of the opposition of Israel and its American friends to the package deal lay not only in the presumed threat to Israel's security that Saudi Arabia's possession of the F-15s would represent, but to the unmistakable change in the pattern of responding to Israel's own requests for arms. It was a public demonstration of the fact that America's special relationship with Israel was being redefined in practice while still being paid full homage in official statements. Israel remained America's friend and ally, but more and more Egypt and Saudi Arabia were also given that designation.
Some observers would say the U.S. government was selling its morals and its true friends for Arab oil and Arab money, which added up to Arab pressure; others, that it was at last waking up to the fact that American and Israeli interests did not necessarily coincide. But there was no denying the fact that at least two Arab states had acquired primary importance in American policy for the Middle East or that this change was gaining increased understanding and support on the part of the American public.
Saudi Arabia, of course, had importance not only for developments in the Arab-Israeli area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, but also for the Persian Gulf. In the latter region, the United States had placed its reliance on what was known as the "two-pillar system" (the pillars being Saudi Arabia and Iran) to maintain stability and security. After the shocks of 1973 that system responded to the interests of those two nations and of the United States. Their governments appeared stable; they were pro-Western; they could keep their smaller neighbors in check; and they were creating an impressive volume and variety of economic relations with the United States and the West resting on a mutually advantageous trade of oil for aid in development.
The system seemed to be working exceedingly well until unrest and violence struck Iran in 1978 and shook the Shah's regime, and thus the Iranian "pillar," to its foundations. For better or for worse the United States had a high stake in the political survival of the Shah, although it really could do nothing to protect his power against the demands of his own people. So close was the association with him over a quarter century that the forces opposing him automatically directed their hatred also to the power that had supplied his military establishment with the latest weapons, trained his security police, and become his partner in the transformation of Iranian society. The presence of over 40,000 Americans in the country, there to help, to teach and to train, as well as to earn good salaries, merely compounded the problem, for they became a natural target of nationalist resentment.
It has been a revolution in slow motion, with the Shah trying to maintain his authority but continually forced to fall back on the armed forces to suppress the demonstrations against him, to keep order and to govern the country. Meanwhile, the country became increasingly ungovernable as universities and schools were closed, banks and public buildings were sacked and burned, workers left their jobs, development plans were abandoned, and oil production needed for essential revenues and services declined. The opposition included the forces of Shia Islam, led by their militant mullahs incensed by the disruption of cultural traditions and by the social inequities and corruption that marked the Shah's program of modernization; and the forces of middle-class nationalism and liberalism represented in the National Front and led mainly by old politicians who had been in the wilderness since the glory days of Mohammed Mosaddeq. In contrast to that time of crisis between the Shah and Mosaddeq, 25 years ago, now there appear to be no significant Communist or pro-Soviet forces in the ranks of the opposition, thanks to years of effective work by the Shah's security police and to the Iranians' deep distrust of Russia.
The Shah's loss of power, which seems inevitable whether he is forced out or remains as a limited monarch, does not necessarily mean a gain in Soviet influence. The religious leaders, if they take power, may well be more anti-Soviet than the Shah, with whom the Soviet Union has learned to live quite comfortably. But the change will be damaging and possibly disastrous to America's position and prestige, which has not been helped by periodic high-level statements in Washington, totally without effect, of support for the Shah. Aside from the certainty that new leaders, at least initially, will repudiate the Shah's foreign connections as well as his domestic programs, there is uncertainty whether they can hold the country together and help to keep things stable in the Gulf region. The Shah, despite his delusions of grandeur about himself and his country, did give his country a stabilizing role in the Gulf. If Iran turns entirely inward or becomes a prey to chaos, no Gulf country can fill that role.
Saudi Arabia, despite its great wealth, has neither the military power nor the political experience and influence to do so. Yet Saudi Arabia has inevitably taken on greater importance in American calculations in the light of events in Iran. The Saudi ruling family has shown more steadiness than the Shah and a remarkable flexibility in combining Islamic tradition with modernization. Yet the same potentially disruptive problems are there: suddenly acquired riches, overambitious development plans, an enlarged military establishment armed with all kinds of new weapons, a great influx of foreigners, and the growth of new groups seeking political expression. The most immediate cause of worry for the United States is not that the Saudi regime will succumb to revolution but that it will adapt its policies to meet the dangers it sees - communism, radicalism, Arab disunity, Zionism and Israel - in ways that would not be helpful to American interests.
The special relationship, presumably cemented by the agreement for the sale of F-15 aircraft, did not prevent Saudi Arabia from joining Sadat's opponents at the Baghdad meeting, or from going along with the OPEC decision in December to raise the price of crude oil well above the point the United States considered reasonable. The decline in Iran's oil production, which was a factor in the OPEC decision, is likely to provide a new test of the Saudi-American relationship. Will Saudi Arabia be expected to expand its own production to make up the difference, and will it see its own interests served in doing so?
Without planning it, at least not in the sense of having a grand design and calculating the consequences, the United States in the past five years has taken on an expanded role in the Middle East far beyond any it had adopted or exercised before. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, as we have seen, it has assumed the task of sole intermediary and shepherd of the negotiating process, placing on itself (and on the shoulders of the President personally) the responsibility for failure as well as for success. It has undertaken to keep the interests of Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia in balance, without alienating any of them, and to keep the challenge of the Arab radicals in check. In the Gulf region, it has become the principal friend, protector and international partner of Saudi Arabia and Iran. In many respects these relationships just grew, the result of traditional security ties, the oil trade, the eagerness of American business for large contracts, the disinclination to say no to the Shah's or the Saudis' requests for arms, and the influx of thousands of Americans into their countries to advise, train or otherwise help in the rapid modernization of their societies.
Those who have called the Middle East an American empire are not far off the mark, even if it is based not on domination but on the consent of local governments. The principal gainer from the upheaval of 1973, including the emergence of OPEC and its undeniable oil power, has been the United States. But an empire has to be managed, in the sense of keeping within tolerable limits the conflicts and disorders of local forces and the challenge of other powers, and it is by no means certain that the United States has the will or capacity for that task. The years of the middle 1970s held few major challenges. The troubles in Lebanon, in Oman or on the border of Iraq and Iran, or the spectacular raids of the PLO, were contained largely by local forces. But the Middle East's potential for instability and violence, and thus the task of management, is much greater than that.
Observers with a geopolitical vision have pointed to ominous developments in the year 1978 that indicate a successful Soviet strategy of closing in on the region. A few salient events might be mentioned: the coup in Afghanistan bringing to power a Communist-led group that turned immediately to Moscow for support and by year's end left little doubt of the dominance of Soviet influence; the struggle for power in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen that ended in the ascendancy of the pro-Soviet wing of the leadership; the consolidation of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, with Soviet and Cuban help, and its military victories over the separatist movements in Eritrea; the continued supply of Soviet arms to Libya well beyond the absorptive capacity of that country, and their use for subversion in pro-Western countries; the strengthening of Soviet influence in Arab states such as Syria and Iraq as they hardened their opposition to Sadat's dealing with Israel and the United States; the disaffection of Turkey from the United States and from NATO as a result of the U.S. arms embargo, lifted only in October; and the deterioration of the power of the Shah's government in Iran, of which new opportunities for Soviet influence or intervention might be a consequence. The picture of a master strategy may be overdrawn, but the potential squeeze on the major oil producers and the core of the American position in the Middle East is evident.
To be mesmerized by the Soviet threat, however, and to see the problem as primarily one of American weakness to be remedied by military power and a firmer resolve to support friendly regimes is to apply a theory based on a fixed view of Soviet global strategy, and to miss the point of what has been happening in the Middle East since World War II, especially since 1973. As a superpower adjacent to the Middle East, and also as the professed patron of movements of national liberation and social revolution, the Soviet Union is bound to have influence in the region, as both governments and opposition movements look for outside support for their domestic or international aims. So it is not surprising that a coup in Afghanistan or a war in Ethiopia should bring Soviet influence, by invitation, into those countries. The record of the past two decades shows, however, that a country that invites the Soviets in does not necessarily accept their control and can, when it chooses, invite them out. Two aspects of the Soviet gains of 1978 are, nevertheless, disturbing. One is that it remains to be proved that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, South Yemen and Ethiopia is temporary. The other is the effect the gains may have on the leaders and peoples of other Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, has made no secret of its concern over the communist danger and the apparent inability of the United States to do anything to check it.
The problem of management is essentially one of adaptation without losing sight of hard interests. If the United States is to be able to cope with the persistence of conflict (as between the Arabs and Israel and among the Arabs themselves) and with the disintegration of regimes (as in Iran), it will have to arrive at a deeper appreciation of both surface and subsurface forces in those countries. It will have to do more than stand with a series of friends (e.g., Israel, Sadat's Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Shah of Iran) without taking full account of the currents of Palestinian nationalism, inter-Arab rivalry, social unrest or Islamic fundamentalism swirling around them. The fragility of governments, no matter how rich they may be, is endemic in the Middle East.
Military power is not unimportant. It is a necessary means of deterring the Soviet Union from military adventurism, and President Carter was right to reply to Mr. Brezhnev's warning against U.S. intervention in Iran with a counter-warning that the United States would not tolerate any intervention by the U.S.S.R. This mutual deterrence, assuming it works, should reduce the danger of war without altering the fact of continued great-power competition. Yet the answers to the problems of management, as to those of international competition, are essentially political, and they rest on the proposition that the basic decisions affecting the region will be made by the governments there and not by outside powers. The latter can influence them effectively only if they find common ground with internal forces.
A second proposition is that no outside power, superpower though it may be, can successfully take on alone the burden of guiding, and managing, or deflecting the course of events. It is worth considering how others with interests in the region as great as America's, such as Western Europe and Japan, can share the political responsibility. It is worth considering, too, how the Soviet Union, if it can be shown by firmness and strength the dangers and futility of resort to military force or pressure, may be brought to see a common interest in the control of regional instability.
Whatever may be the right interpretation of the past year's events, America has and will continue to have vital interests in the Middle East. The basic factors of security and economics in the region are much more favorable to long-term cooperation with the West than with the U.S.S.R. The Carter Administration, building on the experience of its predecessors, has shown some appreciation of the magnitude of the task; of the fact that military power is essential in the background but of very limited use in dealing with current problems; of the need for cool appraisal of trends in the region and for flexible diplomacy. The Administration has shown courage and tenacity, together with over-optimism and inconsistency, in working for an Arab-Israel settlement. It has yet to find the balance of long-term mutual interest with the countries of the Middle East, shared responsibility with Western allies and understandings with the Soviet Union that will make it possible to maintain vital American and Western interests over the long run without placing on this country an imperial burden that it cannot carry alone.