Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Middle East

The Middle East was both an important focal point and a flash point of the Cold War, and it remains such today. During the Cold War, Israel and the Arab states fought three major wars. The two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union and the former colonial powers of Britain and France, both of which retained important interests in the region, all intervened there. The period also was characterized by rising Arab nationalism in the new, fully independent nation-states that emerged following World War II.

Although some scholars identify the Middle East in cultural terms to include those countries embracing Islam, the Middle East generally is delineated by geography to consist of those countries of southwestern Asia west of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under this definition, the Middle East includes Turkey, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, and Egypt.

Most of the Middle East was dominated by the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. Turkey joined the Central Powers at the outbreak of that war and, as a result, in the Treaties of Sèvres (August 1920) and Lausanne (July 1923), it was shorn of its non-Ottoman possessions and was left with Anatolia in Asia Minor and a small portion of the Balkans in Europe, extending from Istanbul on the north side of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmora.

Britain and France had both been intensely involved in the Middle East. The British were anxious to control the Suez Canal, safeguarding their imperial lifeline to India. From 1882 the British had controlled Egypt. At the beginning of the twentieth century, oil also became a major consideration in the Middle East. Petroleum was immensely important to the industrialized West, and the Middle East held the world's largest known crude oil reserves.

At the conclusion of World War I, both France and Britain secured Middle Eastern mandates, subject only to the oversight of the League of Nations. In accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement reached between the two powers during the war, Britain gained mandates over Iraq and Palestine, while France secured mandates over Syria and Lebanon. In these circumstances, modern Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel came into being.

One vexing problem had arisen during the war. While the British government had encouraged the Arabs to rebel against Ottoman control (the Arab Revolt), it had also sought to secure the support of world Jewry for the Allied war effort. Indeed, in 1917 the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration, promising a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Zionists, who sought to secure the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, now found themselves confronting rising Arab nationalism.

In the decades after World War I, increasing numbers of European Jews settled in Palestine. There they bought land but in the process also displaced Arabs. Caught in the middle and with rising Arab-Jewish communal violence, the British found the situation increasingly difficult to control.

The Middle East was immensely important to the Allies during World War II. In order to secure the Suez Canal, the British established in Egypt their largest overseas base. The importance of Egypt and the canal in British strategic thinking is seen in the fact that at the height of the 1940 Battle of Britain, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill diverted scarce military resources to the Middle East. Persian Gulf oil was also of immense strategic importance to the Allied war effort, and Iran became an important supply corridor for U.S. Lend-Lease aid shipped to the Soviet Union.

World War II had immense impacts on the Middle East. During the conflict, nationalist sentiment intensified among the Arab states of the region, leading to full independence for these states. Another new state also appeared in Jewish Israel. During World War II, Nazi policies resulted in the deaths of some 6 million Jews in Europe, and following the war the survivors determined that the Holocaust would never be repeated. Zionists demanded fulfillment of their longstanding call for establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

During and immediately after the war, the British government, which was keenly aware of the effects of these demands on intercommunal violence, tried to inhibit Jewish immigration to Palestine. Indeed, patrolling British destroyers turned back boats filled with Jewish refugees endeavoring to reach Palestine. Soon, armed Jewish groups were fighting the British.

The Holocaust had created an immense sense of moral obligation among the Western powers, especially as the United States and other nations, despite mounting evidence of Nazi persecution, had restricted Jewish immigration in the years immediately before the war. The British government, meanwhile, attempted to work out a partition of Palestine, and when this failed the exasperated British turned the matter over to the United Nations (UN). A UN Security Council agreement to partition the former mandate won the support of the Jews but failed to win acceptance from militant Palestinians and the Arab League. Already, considerable violence had begun as militant Palestinians, confident of eventual victory, attacked Jewish settlements. Hard-pressed financially and unable to maintain order, London took the precipitous decision to abandon its mandate on 14 May 1948. The Zionists immediately proclaimed the independence of the Jewish state of Israel.

Israel won immediate recognition from both the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. decision was rather obvious. The United States contained the world's largest Jewish population, and many wealthy Jews were quite influential politically. Jews in general were an important voting bloc to be solicited by both Democrats and Republicans. President Harry S. Truman was also deeply moved by the suffering of the Jews during the war, and the Jews had proclaimed their intention to establish a Western-oriented, democratic state. At the same time, the United States maintained close ties with the oil-producing Persian Gulf states. Despite being strongly anti-Israel, these states were tied to the United States financially through their exports of oil. Influential Islamic clergy in these states also found Soviet policies toward religion distasteful.

The initial Soviet position of support for the Jewish state was more complex. Many of the Jews who had settled in Palestine were of Russian extraction, and the first agricultural settlers were committed socialists. The Soviets, who had suffered so much in the war at the hands of the Nazis, also identified with what the Jews had experienced. In addition, the Soviets hoped to supplant British influence in the region. The Soviets had actively been seeking a port on the Mediterranean and in the years immediately after World War II brought immense pressure on Turkey in an effort to control the straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. They also sought to secure the province of Azerbaijan in northern Iran that they had occupied during the war.

The United States sought to counter Soviet pressure in the region. When Britain announced in 1947 that it could no longer support the Greek government in its war with communist insurgents, the United States took up the gauntlet. In the 1947 Truman Doctrine, President Truman proclaimed U.S. aid for both Greece and Turkey and pledged U.S. support for those countries fighting communist insurgents and outside pressures. The United States also maintained a strong naval presence in its maintenance of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.

The Israeli declaration of independence was, in any case, immediately followed by the first Arab-Israeli War (1948–1949). Although vastly outnumbered, the Israelis were much better disciplined and organized. They ultimately prevailed over their divided opponents, who had conflicting war aims. At the end of the war, Israeli forces succeeded in driving back the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. In the process, many tens of thousands of Palestinians fled, and the Israelis forced others to leave.

The rise of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt dramatically changed the Middle East. Nasser was a committed Arab nationalist with Pan-Arab aspirations. His goals greatly alarmed Israeli leaders, for the security of the Israeli state had rested in large part on Arab division. Among his accomplishments, Nasser secured a final British departure from Egypt. He also gained a pledge of U.S. financial support for construction of an immense dam on the Nile at Aswan. But when the West rejected his requests for modern weaponry, the Egyptian leader turned to the Soviet bloc for assistance. The United States feared that this would upset the arms balance in the Middle East to the detriment of Israel. Nasser's subsequent conclusion of an arms deal with Czechoslovakia led to the withdrawal of U.S. assistance for the Aswan Dam project. The Soviets stepped in to provide technical assistance, but to pay for the dam project Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, which had been owned by a private company in which the British government was the largest stockholder.

Nasser's decision to nationalize the canal had immense repercussions, ultimately bringing the British government into a secret arrangement developed by the French and Israeli governments to topple him from power. The Israelis were convinced that as soon as Nasser had integrated modern Soviet weapons into its armed forces, Egyptian forces would invade Israel. Indeed, he had already sponsored terrorist raids across the border into Israel and had closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The secret plan developed by the Israelis, French, and then the British called for Israel to land paratroopers at the canal and also advance into the Sinai. The British and French would then demand that both sides pull back and allow their forces to occupy the canal zone. If, as expected, Egypt refused, British and French forces would invade.

The Suez Crisis was one of the major events of the Cold War. Although Egypt did indeed reject the Franco-British ultimatum and British and French troops attacked Egypt, the three invading powers were soon forced to withdraw under heavy U.S. pressure and Soviet threats. An angry President Dwight D. Eisenhower, caught by surprise by the allied move, insisted on a unilateral withdrawal. Far from toppling Nasser, the Suez Crisis strengthened his position both in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. Britain was the biggest loser. Soviet prestige soared, and the United States also gained credibility, although it continued to be hampered by its unqualified support of Israel, which emerged as a big winner. The UN established observers along the Israeli-Egyptian border, and the blockade of the Strait of Tiran came to an end.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, allied itself closely with Arab nationalism against the West and Israel. Thanks to expanded Soviet military assistance, by 1966 the Egyptian armed forces appeared to be sufficiently strong to threaten Israel. This fact, the signing of a defense pact between Egypt and Syria in 1966, and increasing Palestinian attacks on Israel from the neighboring Arab states all greatly alarmed Tel Aviv. Then in mid-May 1967, Nasser ordered Egyptian troops into the Sinai Peninsula and demanded the concentration of UN observers there, leading to their withdrawal. Convinced that the Egyptians would soon attack, Israel struck first.

After securing the approval of President Lyndon Johnson's administration in the United States, the Israelis launched a devastatingly effective air strike on 5 June 1967. It was carefully timed so as to destroy the bulk of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. The Israelis also moved against the Syrians and reluctantly against Jordan, for King Hussein decided to enter the war. The resulting Six-Day War changed the map of the Middle East. Israel took the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The Soviets threatened intervention but in the end did nothing, which greatly diminished their prestige in the Arab world. French President Charles de Gaulle, angered over the preemptive Israeli strike, did cut off French military assistance to Israel, however. The United States, which had done little to assist Israel in the war, nonetheless positioned the Sixth Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean as a warning to the Soviets, and shortly after the war, the United States substantially increased its military and economic assistance to Israel. The Soviets, meanwhile, made good the military losses sustained by the Arab states.

In 1964, Palestinian nationalist Yasir Arafat had formed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as an umbrella organization for disparate Palestinian groups fighting Israel. It began launching terrorist raids of its own with the aim of eliminating the Jewish state. The bulk of the PLO attacks came from Jordan, and soon there was virtually a state within a state. In September 1970 King Hussein moved to expel the PLO, prompting military intervention on the part of Syria, a staunch PLO supporter. Jordan secured pledges of support from Britain and the United States but was able to both expel the PLO and hold off the Syrians without outside assistance.

Nasser died in September 1970 and was followed as president of Egypt by Anwar Sadat, who concluded that the United States was the only country capable of forcing Israel into a negotiated settlement. He therefore ordered Soviet military advisors to leave Egypt, and Soviet bases there closed. These moves failed to win any concessions from either the United States or Israel, however. Sadat then concluded that only a renewal of the fighting could force a settlement. To enhance the possibility of success, he concluded a secret understanding with Syria for a joint surprise attack on Israel.

The Israeli government was indeed caught completely unawares by the Egyptian attack of 6 October 1973, which occurred at the start of Yom Kippur. Elaborate Egyptian deceptions masked their preparations. What became known as the Ramadan War, the Yom Kippur War, or the War of Atonement began with an Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians then set up defensive positions. Their surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites on the other side of the canal devastated reacting Israeli aircraft, and their new handheld Soviet antitank missiles took a heavy toll from responding Israeli armor. In the north along the Golan Heights, Syrian forces almost overran severely outnumbered Israeli defenders. Israeli forces rallied on both fronts, and by the time a cease-fire was declared they had driven the Syrians back and penetrated Syria itself almost to Damascus. On the Southern Front against Egypt, Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal and were threatening to sever the supply lines to the Egyptian Third Army. A complete victory by either side was not acceptable to the United States or the Soviet Union, and under their joint pressure a cease-fire came into effect, followed by a military withdrawal.

One important side effect of the Ramadan War was the Arab oil embargo of 1973–1974. The major Arab oil-producing states sided with Egypt and Syria and cut off oil shipments to any nation supporting Israel, including the United States. This action exposed the dependence of the Western nations, especially Western Europe and Japan, on Arab oil and greatly strengthened the influence of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) over both the supply and pricing of petroleum. Huge increases in oil and energy prices, combined with shortages of each, badly crippled the West's already fragile economy. But increases in the price of oil gave the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf vastly increased wealth as well as expanded influence. These states contributed considerable sums to support the Palestinians and directly or indirectly supported Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel. The oil embargo also increased the world influence of the Soviet Union, the world's largest oil-producing nation.

In November 1977, Sadat took a major step toward reaching a settlement with Tel Aviv by visiting Israel. His initiative ultimately resulted in the 1978 Camp David Accords, which were followed the next year by a comprehensive Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. The administration of President Jimmy Carter in the United States hoped that the treaty would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, but the ensuing widespread condemnation of Sadat in the Arab world and his assassination in 1981 largely prevented this. Meanwhile, the hard-line Arab states opposing any accommodation with Israel moved closer to the Soviet Union.

At the same time, increasing Palestinian terrorist attacks from Lebanon led Israel to invade southern Lebanon and establish a defensive zone there. Syria, meanwhile, sent its forces into northern Lebanon. The Syrians subsequently took control of that country, which was sharply divided between Muslim and Christian populations.

The oil-producing states, although they provided financial support to the Palestinians and states opposing Israel, took no military action of their own. This enabled them to maintain friendly relations with the West, especially the United States. This situation was particularly true with Iran, ruled by the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Soviet pressure on Iran following World War II and a close alliance between the Soviet Union and Iraq, Iran's regional rival, also served to cement a bond with the United States. Iran and Iraq were at loggerheads over the Shatt al-Arab waterway that separated the two nations. The shah, however, was increasingly unpopular and out of touch with the aspirations of his people. Opposition to the shah was centered in Islamic fundamentalists opposed to his Westernization and his close ties with the United States. In January 1979 the shah was forced to flee Iran, and the next month the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state, which was violently anti-American. In November 1979 Iranian militants overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized 160 Americans as hostages, inaugurating a crisis that probably cost Carter reelection as president.

In 1979 Soviet forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan. The next year Iraq invaded Iran, beginning an eight-year-long (1980–1988) protracted and immensely costly conflict for regional dominance. The war ended in stalemate, but Iran remained committed to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

In December 1988, the PLO publicly accepted the existence of Israel, increasing pressure on both sides for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Cold War ended, however, without formal achievement of this goal.

In 1990, believing that the United States would not intervene, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his forces into Kuwait and took over that state. Iraq had long claimed Kuwait as a province, and Saddam was angered over slant-drilling into a large Iraqi field by Kuwait as well as by excessive Kuwaiti oil production that tended to drive down the price of oil. Iraq wanted the price of oil as high as possible in order to pay off its massive debts from the Iran-Iraq War. U.S. President George H. W. Bush was convinced that Iraq would soon pressure Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, so he put together a coalition of powers that ultimately drove Iraq from Kuwait. Bush ended the war early, however, with the result that Hussein remained in power. This ultimately led to a new war with Iraq a decade later.

The Cold War ended with the Middle East as one of the most important areas in the world, not only because of the still-simmering Arab-Israeli feud but also because of the increasing importance of oil in the world economy.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.; Cooley, John K. Payback: America's Long War in the Middle East. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1991.; Efrat, Moshe, and Jacob Berkovitch, eds. Superpowers and Client States in the Middle East: The Imbalance of Influence. New York: Routledge, 1991.; Freedman, Robert Owen. Moscow and the Middle East: Soviet Policy since the Invasion of Afghanistan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.; Mansfield, Peter. A History of the Middle East. New York: Penguin, 1992.; Oren, Michael B. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.; Taylor, Alan R. The Superpowers and the Middle East. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.
 

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