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In April 1987 General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared that the absence of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel "cannot be considered normal." This comment reflects a growing belief among Soviet policymakers that the rupture in Soviet-Israeli relations, dating from the Six-Day War of 20 years ago, should at last be repaired. And, to give it more significance, the remark was uttered in the presence of Moscow’s oldest Middle Eastern ally—and Israel’s most implacable adversary—Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Three months later, in July, an official Soviet consular delegation arrived in Jerusalem, including a deputy head of the Middle East department of the Soviet foreign ministry. Carrying Gorbachev’s air of glasnost with them as they traveled, the Russian visitors set about attending a series of cordial and well-publicized meetings with various Israelis at all levels of society.
These tentative moves toward an opening to Israel mark a new direction in Soviet policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, a deliberate effort by the Gorbachev leadership to broaden Soviet options in the Middle East. Gradually but consistently, Moscow is showing greater willingness to make practical and ideological concessions to improve relations with Middle Eastern states from Egypt and Israel to the Persian Gulf.
The primary Soviet objective, to set up limitations on the military and political influence of the United States, remains unchanged. Both in the Gulf and the Arab-Israeli theater, this objective now dictates a policy of conflict avoidance, possibly even of conflict resolution, to eliminate pretexts for American military engagement. Thus, the Soviet Union is taking a constructive stance in new mediation moves at the United Nations to bring about a cease-fire in the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war.
After nearly two decades without significant official contact between Israel and the Soviet Union, Gorbachev has seized the initiative. But the process was slow in getting under way.
The first visible step was an informal meeting in Paris in July 1985 between the Soviet and Israeli ambassadors to France. Substantive reports of this meeting were leaked to the Israeli media and denied by the Soviets, but Moscow did not deny that a meeting had taken place. Then came various contacts between Israeli and East European diplomats at different levels, resulting in an agreement in principle on the establishment of Polish and Israeli "interest sections" (diplomatic offices without diplomatic relations) in the two respective countries. At the same time Soviet spokesmen, official and unofficial, offered numerous comments to the effect that it had been a mistake to sever relations with Israel in 1967; some even suggested that Moscow wished to put an end to this situation, thus anticipating Gorbachev’s own remark.
Less tangible hints also appeared, such as the publication in the Soviet press of Israel’s message to Moscow on the occasion of the anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany; the occasional easing of entry restrictions for Israeli tourists to Eastern Europe; the Bulgarian government’s invitation to visit Sofia to the Bulgarian-born wife of Israel’s then foreign minister (and soon to be prime minister), Yitzhak Shamir; and the gradual reduction of the virulent anti-Zionist propaganda which had become standard fare in the Soviet press in the last few years. Interspersed were the periodic grants of permission for individual Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, most notably Anatoly Shcharansky.
Finally came the announcement in August 1986 that Moscow and Jerusalem were to hold talks in Helsinki on consular matters, possibly to be followed by the visit to Israel of a Soviet delegation. The Soviets had selected the lowest level possible in diplomatic relations. Indeed they even ruled out an official consular relationship or reciprocity in the form of an Israeli consular delegation, scrupulously limiting the Helsinki meeting to the issue of the Soviet delegation’s visit. (Apparently Moscow would have preferred simply to dispatch its delegation, but Israel had requested the Helsinki meeting to clarify Soviet plans for the visit.) The Helsinki meeting concluded abruptly and the Soviet request to send a delegation was withdrawn, leading to speculation that Jerusalem had misread the signs and had exaggerated Soviet intentions. Yet the process continued.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres held a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at the United Nations in September 1986, and in the ensuing months contacts between Soviet and Israeli officials continued. Perhaps the most significant occurred in Rome in April 1987 between Peres, by then the foreign minister, and two of Moscow’s top advisers on the Middle East, Karen Brutents and Alexander Zotov. This was followed by a meeting between Peres and Soviet Ambassador to Washington Yuri Dubinin and, subsequently, renewal of the Soviet request to send a consular delegation. Reciprocity, however, was still ruled out.
The Soviets also broke their cultural boycott of 20 years, sending two performing arts troupes to Israel. A senior Soviet journalist, Izvestia’s Middle East expert and political commentator Konstantin Geivandov, joined a delegation to Israel, publishing a surprisingly positive and variegated picture of Israeli society upon his return. And in the summer of 1987 a high-level group of Israeli politicians was invited to Moscow. These events were accompanied by the release of almost all of the Soviet Jews imprisoned for Jewish activism, and by an increase in the number of Jews permitted to leave the country, reaching the rate of 500 to 900 per month by the late spring.
All of this activity produced rumors of an imminent Peres-Gorbachev meeting, as well as speculation regarding free emigration of Soviet Jewry and the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Israel. At the very least they raised tantalizing questions regarding Soviet intentions.
Soviet calculations about resuming diplomatic relations with Israel involve several factors, most notably the effect on Moscow’s relations with the Arab world. A second factor, however, is global: that is, the impact of such a move on the Soviet competition with the United States in the Middle East and, possibly, on Soviet-American relations in general.
The decision to break relations during the 1967 war happened to be a Yugoslav—not a Soviet—initiative, clearly intended for impact in the Arab world. At the time the Soviets were under Arab attack for their relative inaction during the war, including refusal to quickly supply any kind of aid or arms; they were also blamed by some for trying to restrain Egypt from attacking first, and for the poor performance of Soviet-manufactured arms. To mollify its Arab allies Moscow took what seemed a no-risk step of severing relations with Israel (in addition to delivering a warning to Israel to hold its fire against Syria).
The move was an anomaly; Moscow had no tradition of breaking relations with states whose policies it condemned. In subsequent years Moscow resisted Arab pressures to withdraw recognition of Israel, asserting even to the Palestinians the Soviet Union’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
Moreover, Moscow found itself at a disadvantage due to the absence of formal relations with Jerusalem; the United States was now better equipped to mediate between the Arab and Israeli sides. The U.S.S.R. used this point to argue with the Arabs in favor of renewing its relations with Israel; during the Lebanese war a Soviet official reportedly explained his country’s impassiveness by commenting that the lack of Soviet-Israeli relations was an obstacle that prevented Moscow from acting effectively as a negotiator. Nonetheless, declining Soviet fortunes in the Arab world in the 1970s rendered Moscow too vulnerable to risk a renewal of relations with Israel.
The Soviets have set various conditions for renewal of relations. At the 1973 Geneva Conference, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko indicated to Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that relations might be forthcoming if there were "significant progress" in the peace process. Later, the Soviets spoke of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, and more recently they demanded Israeli abrogation of its "strategic understanding" with Washington. At the time of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit, to reassure the Arabs and to offset moves toward the United States by Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Moscow added a demand for PLO participation in any peace talks as a condition for renewed relations.
During the past two years of hints and meetings, the Soviets have only vaguely referred to the precondition that Israel withdraw from the territories; they speak more of an end to Israeli "aggressive policies," or even the less exacting formula for renewing relations "within the framework of a settlement." The stepping up of Soviet-Israeli contacts does not mean that Moscow has ceased to criticize Israel’s relationship with the United States or that it does not make demands for the Palestinians, including the creation of a Palestinian state; but these demands are presented as Moscow’s view of what is required for a settlement, rather than as conditions for renewed relations.
In sum, the impression has been created, at least privately, that there may be some softening of the Soviets’ precondition for renewing diplomatic relations, a shift back toward their 1973 requirement for "progress in the peace negotiations" and away from demands for full Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories.
For all the risk, or cost, to the Soviets in the Arab world, Moscow has one compelling reason to consider renewed relations: the desire to break Washington’s monopoly on the Middle East peace process. Moscow’s efforts to convene an international conference on the Middle East—a renewal of the 1973 Geneva framework—have been directed at just this goal.
Moscow’s interest in such a conference has fluctuated somewhat throughout the 1970s and 1980s, primarily in direct relation to American successes or failures (its interest being high in times of apparent U.S. progress in the region, lower when American mediation was clearly unsuccessful, for example, in the spring of 1975). Interestingly, such fluctuations in the Soviet position have shown no correlation with the degree of Arab unity on the matter at any given time.
Soviet gestures to Israel appeared to come at those times when Moscow was pressing hardest for an international conference or believed such a forum to be within reach. The intention was clear: to overcome Israeli opposition to Soviet participation by demonstrating that Moscow would not be a totally hostile party in the talks. At these times the Soviets went out of their way to specify Israel as one of the states in the region whose security, territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty were to be guaranteed by a Middle East settlement.
On these occasions the Soviets explicitly spoke of Israel’s frontiers as those of June 4, 1967, i.e., the 1949-1967 armistice lines rather than the more restricted lines of the 1947 partition plan, the only borders formally accepted by Moscow. In this more moderate stand on borders, the proposed Palestinian state would be limited to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as distinct from (and in opposition to) the PLO’s pre-1974 demand and general aspiration for a "democratic secular state" in all of Palestine (replacing the state of Israel).
In 1977, when plans for a reconvening of the Geneva Conference were in high gear, the Soviets were even willing to soften one of their demands regarding PLO participation, allowing the issue to be handled at the conference itself. This was a concession apparently necessary to gain Israeli agreement to the forum at all, but it also demonstrated the tactical nature of the Soviets’ relationship with at least one Arab partner.
In 1974 there was no Israeli demand for Moscow to renew full diplomatic relations with Israel in order to attend (or co-chair) such a conference. Recently, however, Israel has posed such a condition. When he was prime minister (1984-86), Peres declared publicly that he could envisage a role for the Soviet Union in the Middle East peace process if Moscow were to renew relations with Israel. Later he spoke of Soviet participation in an "international forum" and finally, in August 1986, of Soviet participation in an international conference, provided there were diplomatic relations.
Peres’ concession on an international conference was primarily a response to the demand of King Hussein of Jordan for such a negotiating framework, as insulation against Arab criticism of Jordanian "direct negotiations" with Israel. Inasmuch as negotiations with Jordan have been of the highest priority for the Labor Party, in or out of power, Peres was willing to accept the Russians, if that were the condition set by Hussein, but only at a price to Moscow.
To Shamir, Israel’s prime minister since October 1986, this price is virtually irrelevant, for he has rejected outright the idea of an international conference. Shamir added Jewish emigration from the U.S.S.R. to the conditions for Soviet inclusion in the peace process, and Peres himself on various occasions substituted demands for Jewish emigration for those of diplomatic relations as the condition for Soviet participation.
The Jewish emigration issue is complex for the Kremlin. Given his priorities for improving the Soviet economy, Gorbachev, like Brezhnev, is interested in détente and cooperative business ventures with Western firms. He has used the emigration issue to further these interests, repeatedly promising North American Jewish leaders that emigration would be forthcoming. Unlike Brezhnev, however, Gorbachev at first pursued a minimalist policy, permitting only very limited, almost purely symbolic emigration of individual Jews, usually the more celebrated cases.
In time, however, this approach underwent a transformation—in part because of its failure to satisfy the Americans, but perhaps also because Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, appeared to accept Israel’s linkage of emigration with an international conference. Just as he sought to meet Peres’ preconditions for a conference at least partially, by gradually improving Soviet-Israeli relations, even if not yet to the level of full diplomatic relations, so too Gorbachev has altered his position on Soviet Jewry. He has by no means gone so far as to permit full and free emigration, or even the departure of Jews at anything near the rate reached during the Brezhnev era. This he apparently perceives as having been a Soviet concession which failed to bring the promised U.S. trade and credit. He has, however, agreed to the emigration of the "refuseniks," believed to number between 10,000 and 12,000. Since then Gorbachev has claimed that the new Soviet emigration laws will permit some sort of continuing emigration for other Soviet Jews in the future, although the new laws are in fact quite restrictive. At the same time, Moscow has gradually released all but one or two of those incarcerated for Jewish activities and greatly reduced official anti-Semitism, as if offering a better life for those eschewing emigration.
There is also, however, an Israeli domestic political side to the Soviet Jewry issue. In itself, the issue of renewed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union has not been one of great significance for any Israeli government over the years. Prime Minister Shamir’s Likud, while not averse to improved relations with Moscow, is opposed to an international conference and less interested than Labor in opening a path to King Hussein; it therefore feels no pressing need to compromise with the Soviets. This has made it much easier for them to woo Soviet emigré voters within Israel (to some degree a natural constituency for the right-wing nationalist parties), thereby appearing as the "real" champion of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.
Thus Likud’s Moshe Arens, now minister without portfolio, sought to make Jewish emigration a condition even for holding the Helsinki meeting, demanding an Israeli cabinet-level discussion of relations with the Soviet Union prior to the talks, and calling for the return of the delegation when Moscow announced that it had no intention of discussing the Jewish issue. Labor, of course, has presented its policy in terms no less supportive of Soviet Jewry, but the issue of emigration has the potential for becoming a domestic political football that could complicate any change in Soviet-Israeli relations.
While Peres may have impressed the Soviets as more promising regarding relations with the Soviet Union, it was the change in the Kremlin itself—the emergence of Gorbachev—that brought about the growing Soviet interest in an opening to Israel. Such a departure was consistent with a broad effort by Gorbachev to invigorate Soviet foreign policy, particularly as part of an effort to increase Soviet options in the Middle East by reaching beyond Moscow’s usual clients.
Gorbachev’s two years in office have seen a flurry of Soviet diplomatic activity in the Middle East, such as the significant improvement of relations with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, North Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, as well as attempts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. Moscow reached an agreement with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, negotiations for which involved a visit to Moscow by Saudi Petroleum Minister Hisham Nazer in January 1987. This was accompanied by a renewed effort to patch up relations with Iran. Indeed some of these actions, particularly the efforts to improve relations with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, seemed in conflict with Moscow’s ties to Syria—yet the Soviets were not deterred.
The new Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union provided an ideological basis for this activity. It added an element, not present in official documents during the Brezhnev era, advocating good relations with Third World countries following the capitalist path of development. This point had crept into Soviet theoretical literature in the early 1980s, but it was new for a policy document and quite different from the ideologically more orthodox search for radical Third World partners characteristic of the late 1970s.
In the Arab world this policy marks Soviet abandonment of the former, unsuccessful effort to forge a radical bloc, and a turn toward establishing relationships with conservative and moderate Arab states as well as with the radicals. From the Soviet point of view this new approach has met with surprising success. Whether the result of disappointment with the United States, fear of the spread of the Iran-Iraq war and Iranian power, or simply a willingness to broaden their own foreign policy options, the Gulf states have responded positively to Soviet overtures.
Moscow has been able to collect demands for the convening of an international conference on the Arab-Israeli dispute from the Gulf as well as from Egypt and Jordan. One might even speculate that this improved Soviet position in the Arab world may have provided Moscow with the confidence to make its overtures to Israel, in the belief that Soviet-Arab relations are strong enough today to withstand such a test. Indeed the Arab states, including Syria, did not respond particularly vehemently to the limited steps Moscow initiated with Israel—and Egypt and Jordan even urged the Soviets to renew these relations so as to facilitate the convening of an international conference.
Gorbachev’s flexibility has been strikingly evident in his improvement of relations with Egypt. Ever since the expulsion of Soviet military advisers in 1972 and President An war al-Sadat’s abrogation of the Soviet-Egyptian Friendship Treaty in 1976, Moscow has sought to repair relations; the return of a Soviet ambassador to Cairo in 1985 was a sign of some Egyptian receptiveness.
The breakthrough appears to have come with the Soviet agreement, more than 15 years after the original Egyptian request, to reschedule Egypt’s military debts (believed to total approximately $3 billion, to be paid now over a 25-year period). This paved the way for new bilateral economic agreements and rumors, at least, of a renewal of Soviet deliveries of military spare parts and possibly even arms.
These developments do not spell a reorientation of Egypt away from the United States, however. Indeed, the rumored arms agreement may be partially designed by the Egyptians to gain some leverage in their military arrangements with Washington. Yet from Moscow’s point of view, these moves have at least brought the Soviet Union back to a potentially competitive position vis-à-vis Washington in the Middle East.
With regard to Jordan, the Soviets may have somewhat more limited ambitions. New arms deals, including those for the provision of air defense systems and even a small number of Soviet advisers, have not produced any change in Jordan’s attitude toward the United States. Moreover, Soviet-Jordanian relations were greatly strained with the arrest of leading Jordanian communists in the spring of 1986 and by King Hussein’s efforts to bring about talks between the PLO and the United States, a negotiating track clearly opposed by Moscow.
Yet the Soviets were surprisingly cautious in their responses, condemning the Hussein-Arafat accord for possible negotiations with Israel when it was in effect, but nonetheless claiming confidence that Hussein would not capitulate to an American deal. Similarly, although Moscow was outwardly indifferent to Hussein’s attempts at rapprochement with Syria, it welcomed and cooperated with the king’s efforts to mediate between Syria and Iraq.
The major Soviet gain from Jordan, however, was the king’s insistence on convening an international conference with Soviet participation. Whether a condition of the arms deals or merely the result of Hussein’s desire for a broader umbrella to protect himself in agreeing to negotiate with Israel, the king’s commitment to an international conference is a significant achievement for Moscow. Coupled with the abrogation of the Hussein-Arafat accord in April 1987, an event that served to scuttle U.S. mediation efforts, it is as valuable to Soviet policy as the normalization of relations with Egypt and the progress made with the Gulf states.
PLO abrogation of the Hussein-Arafat accord was very much the result of Soviet efforts, and a condition set by Moscow as it successfully mediated the reunification of the three major components of the PLO. A reunited Palestinian movement, categorically rejecting any plans which might lead to or through Washington, was a Soviet gain, and was even a slight boost for the communists in the PLO. Moscow remained no less wary of Arafat, however. The Soviets are hopeful rather than certain that Arafat’s disappointment with the United States, as well as the limits placed on him by his former opponents in the PLO, will keep him from looking westward again.
One Soviet disappointment with the PLO reunification, however, has been the failure to gain Syria’s prompt approval and the inclusion of some of the Syrian-backed factions of the PLO. Gorbachev, like his predecessors, has been unwilling to countenance a Syrian takeover of the Palestinian movement, and he reportedly views Assad’s refusal to accept anything less than Syrian dominance as an affront to the Soviet-mediated reunification effort.
This is not the only difficulty Gorbachev has with the problematic Syrians. Gorbachev seemed to seek good relations with the Syrians, as evidenced by the communiqué after the May 1986 talks between the Soviet leader and visiting Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, which referred to the "trust between the leadership of the two countries." Yet many of Moscow’s moves in the region—be they with regard to Iraq, Egypt, Arafat’s Fatah wing of the PLO or even Israel—have displeased the Syrians. And many of the old points of conflict have remained: Syria’s ambitions in Lebanon, its demands for "strategic parity" with Israel, and its fundamental hostility to Israel.
The Soviets do not acknowledge Syrian control over Lebanon. They seek instead to maintain independent channels to the Lebanese government and various factions in the country, occasionally even snubbing the senior Syrian representatives there. With regard to strategic parity versus Israel, the Soviets have maintained a steady stream of improved military hardware to Damascus but continue to balk at providing the full quantities requested and at meeting certain qualitative demands from the Syrians.
Concerning Syria’s conflict with Israel, Gorbachev has repeatedly and pointedly referred to the need to solve international disputes by political means. His remark to Assad in Moscow in April 1987 that "the reliance on military force has completely lost its credibility as a way of solving Middle East conflict" suggests a difference of opinion between the two and possible Soviet concern over Syrian interest in military moves.
Given Gorbachev’s willingness to ignore Assad’s demands and Syrian discomfort over various matters, including Soviet-Egyptian relations, it is most unlikely that Moscow would abandon the idea of an international conference simply to please the Syrians. Yet the Soviets must gain Syrian acquiescence if such a conference is to have any meaning for Moscow.
It is therefore possible that Moscow has concluded that more time is needed to achieve Syrian acquiescence to a conference—i.e., what the Soviets have referred to as more time to "prepare" the conference. Part of this preparation as envisioned by Moscow may be Assad’s agreement, possibly reluctant, to meet with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in rapprochement talks promoted by the Soviet Union and Jordan.
A more important part of the preparations may be bilateral efforts to achieve greater Soviet-American accord on the issues involved. The Soviets may estimate that Israeli and American opposition to a conference remains too strong to allow for convening this year (Soviet spokesmen have mentioned 1988 as a more likely time). And if, as in the past, Soviet urgency regarding a conference is a function of concern over American successes in the region, a lack of urgency in the current Soviet position may well be connected to the relative bogging-down of American efforts, particularly in the Persian Gulf.
What appears now to be Soviet hesitation regarding a conference is probably only temporary, outweighed by Moscow’s desire to consolidate a stable presence in the region and prevent a return to exclusive American mediation. For this reason, fundamental Soviet interest in a conference, and even in the success of such a conference, remain. This is evidenced by the relative Soviet flexibility on the circumstances of a conference, expressed by Shevardnadze and Brutents in their talks with Peres, and in comments by officials in Moscow in connection with the notion of direct bilateral talks and various possibilities for Palestinian representation.
What Moscow clearly seems to appreciate is that the absence of some sort of settlement or negotiating process involving the Soviets might ultimately spell the return of exclusive American influence or another Arab-Israeli war.
Iran presents special problems for the Soviet Union, but through small, careful steps the relationship seems to have improved. Following a Moscow visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, there were reports that the Soviet-Iranian gas pipeline was working again, that Soviet technicians had returned to the sites of steelworks under construction at Isfahan and elsewhere, and that the Soviet-Iranian Chamber of Commerce had reopened in Moscow. In August 1987 Moscow announced that a visit to Tehran by Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov had resulted in agreements for "large-scale projects of mutually beneficial economic cooperation."
This has not, however, marked a genuine Iranian opening toward the Soviet Union, and Moscow has exhibited very little optimism about these relations. One reason is the continued strain in Soviet-Iranian relations over Iranian aid to the Baluchi rebels in Afghanistan. But more fundamental is Iran’s intransigence regarding a termination of the Iran-Iraq war.
In the early years of the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and of the war with Iraq, Soviet hopes for nourishing a pro-Soviet Iranian foreign policy outweighed any qualms Moscow may have had about the dangers of Khomeinism; they also overshadowed Moscow’s faltering treaty with Iraq, prompting what was in effect a pro-Iranian position on the war. As Moscow’s hopes for Iranian friendship were dashed, the Soviets tilted back to Iraq, steadily increasing their support, resuming arms deliveries in 1982 and supporting Iraq’s call for negotiations. Gorbachev’s recent attempts to improve relations with Iran have not altered this basic position. In fact negative references to Iran or Islamic fundamentalism have continued to appear in important Soviet commentaries, and the Soviets have continued to accuse the Iranians of "subversion" and "aggression" against Afghanistan.
Soviet propaganda, in its condemnation of the Gulf war as a diversion from the Arab peoples’ more important struggle against "Western imperialism" and "Israeli aggression," probably reflects Gorbachev’s genuine interest in an end to the conflict. Theoretically of course, continuation of the war could render Iraq ever more dependent on Moscow or, conversely, drive Iran toward Moscow as Iranian relations with the United States worsen. It could even be speculated that American military moves against Iran could serve as pretext for a Soviet move into northern Iran. Yet none of these hypothetical scenarios appears to be either believable or worthwhile in Moscow’s eyes when weighed against the risks involved.
For Iraq could as credibly turn closer to the United States, in search of the aid needed to maintain its war effort. The general softening of Iraq’s position toward Egypt, despite the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, and particularly its friendship with Jordan are indications of continued Iraqi independence of Moscow.
Moreover, Iraq might actually be defeated by the force of Iranian arms, bringing discredit to the years of Soviet military assistance to Baghdad and, worse, permitting the spread of Khomeinism along the Soviet frontier. This could be most threatening to Soviet interests, particularly Moscow’s control over the Soviet Muslim population, a concern increasingly discussed openly among Soviet policymakers. An approaching defeat might also drive Iraq to make further rash strikes against Gulf shipping, now protected by both Moscow and Washington.
The most important consequence of the continued conflict thus far is a significant increase in the U.S. military presence in the area, precisely the circumstance that Gorbachev’s Middle Eastern initiatives aim to prevent. There is increasing risk of direct superpower military involvement, if not actual confrontation. Such an entanglement runs counter to Gorbachev’s search for détente with the United States, an international climate which would enable him to concentrate on his domestic program. Much as a pro-Soviet Iran would be a highly prized trophy for Gorbachev, Moscow has shown no signs of altering its estimation that no such outcome is likely while Iran is ruled by Khomeini.
For all of these reasons, Soviet representatives have played a fully supportive role in U.N. efforts to bring about an end to the conflict. Both superpowers seem now to display a greater sense of urgency in the various moves to end the war, given their joint military presence in the Gulf and the prospect of American-Iranian conflict. Consistent with this objective are Soviet attempts to engineer an Iraqi-Syrian rapprochement.
The efforts of the Gorbachev regime to broaden Soviet options in the Middle East and to pursue relations with conservatives as well as radicals, seeking new friends even as it seeks to unite its older partners, represent a change in Soviet tactics. They do not necessarily represent a shift in Soviet objectives or policy positions with regard to the conflicts in the region.
A possible exception to this may be the case of Afghanistan. The ostensible withdrawal of approximately 8,000 Soviet troops from Afghanistan hardly spells a change in policy. Yet Moscow’s initiatives to discuss a timetable for withdrawal, to replace former Afghan President Babrak Karmal, to search for some local solution—even to the extent of showing a willingness to talk with the former king, Mohammad Zahir Khan—and talk of the possibility of eventual Afghan neutrality do suggest that Gorbachev is groping toward some end to the venture.
One might argue that Gorbachev wants to free Soviet resources and energies for the domestic economic tasks at hand. But, in addition, the unpopularity of the war, the problems of Soviet casualties and the poor morale of returning soldiers (particularly in the Muslim republics of the U.S.S.R.) have contributed to a Soviet desire to end the conflict. Managing to achieve this will be difficult—that is, short of simply cutting the losses and pulling out, with all the embarrassment that would involve, especially in justifying the Soviet lives lost to date.
The Soviet position on the simmering Lebanese crisis has also remained much the same under Gorbachev. While the Soviets have not lessened their propaganda support for the leftist forces in Lebanon, they have also not undertaken any significant new actions there. Various comments over the past year have suggested Soviet uneasiness over the violence of Syrian- and Iranian-backed groups, and Moscow has generally sought an end to the internecine conflict. While they deplore the fracturing of Lebanon, the Soviets have nonetheless been reluctant to support the efforts of Damascus to consolidate the Lebanese political scene under its own control.
Gorbachev, no less than his predecessors, is concerned about Syria’s overextension in Lebanon, with the strains it places on Syrian resources and negative repercussions in the Arab world. In addition, there remains the ever-present risk of Israeli-Syrian hostilities, which could be triggered by events in southern Lebanon. Thus, when Soviet propaganda declares, in the Lebanese as well as the Iran-Iraq context, that continued warfare merely aids the "imperialists," diverting and dividing the Arab world from the primary struggle (against Zionism), it probably reflects a genuine Soviet interest in the restoration of stability.
With regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a similar lack of substantive change in Soviet positions under Gorbachev is apparent, despite changes in tactics. Moscow’s opening to Israel has not entailed any change in the substance of Moscow’s position toward the conflict or its resolution. Despite the raising of Middle East issues in talks with the United States, there has been no urgency apparent in Soviet moves toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. This could simply be a realistic response to the lack of priority accorded the issue by the Reagan Administration. Gorbachev, even more than his predecessors, has concentrated his foreign policy efforts on the world’s major powers. The Third World in general, the Middle East in particular, would appear to be clearly subordinate to this main concentration.
Gorbachev’s extreme cautiousness in his response to the American attack on Libya in April 1986 was perhaps demonstrative of these priorities. It is true that no Soviet leader has regarded Muammar al-Qaddafi as a reliable, stable ally; Moscow has refrained from signing a friendship treaty with Tripoli despite recurrent rumors that a draft has long been ready. Thus Soviet caution with regard to Libya should not be taken as an indication of Gorbachev’s likely behavior in the case of a threat to Syria, for example.
Yet Gorbachev’s willingness, apparently, to assist in the release of the TWA hostages in Lebanon in June 1985, his resistance to Assad’s demands for strategic parity with Israel, and his general warnings to Syria to avoid military solutions all indicate that he is no less cautious than Brezhnev was in the Middle East. Indeed, his general reserve toward regional and local conflicts suggests he may be even more cautious.
What remains to be seen is whether Gorbachev’s new tactics will be more successful than those of previous Soviet leaders. The attempt to broaden Soviet options, as distinct from the past unsuccessful effort to build a radical bloc in the area, offers some promise for a Soviet challenge to American predominance. The decline in the power of the oil-producing states offers him new opportunities insofar as it may render these states and their Arab allies less independent. American intransigence on the Palestinian issues makes the Soviets, by comparison, appear more forthcoming in the eyes of the Arabs. And an Israel somewhat more open to the Soviet Union might improve Moscow’s chances for playing a role.
Yet the Soviets still have several serious problems, whatever their tactics. The lack of unity and stability in the area continues to expose conflicting loyalties and hinder Moscow’s attempts to transform success with one country into success in the region as a whole. More important, aside from their poor record in Arab eyes regarding the provision of assistance in time of crisis, the Soviets must prove that they can "deliver" something in times of peace. Arms deliveries have not in the past proved sufficient to ensure the loyalty of an Arab ally, nor has arms blackmail succeeded in forcing Moscow’s Arab clients to abide by its preferences.
The Arab states may not be pleased with American policies in the region, but because of its relationship with Israel, the United States still holds the key to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Soviet answer to this in the past, be it through arms deliveries or propaganda, has been to seek to portray itself as indispensable: to the Arabs, as the only country able to press Washington into forcing Israel to make concessions and/or deterring an Israeli attack; and to the Americans, as the only party able to restrain the Arabs and, possibly, bring them to the negotiating table. Whether Gorbachev will have a better, or even a different answer, is not at all clear.