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Middle East Regional Defense Organizations

When the Clement Attlee government came to power in Britain in July 1945, British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin moved to end British colonial rule in much of the Middle East. To that end, he hoped to replace older British protectorate agreements with Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt with bilateral treaties that would reduce British commitments without giving up influence in the region. Talks for new agreements were frustrating, however. The Iraqis backed out at the last minute and did not sign the 1947 Portsmouth Agreement. The Egyptians were also unready to accept Britain's new terms and demanded the removal of British troops. While the Iraqi rejection did not pose any immediate difficulties for the British, Egypt's demand jeopardized Britain's main stronghold in the Middle East.

Britain's inability to reach a bilateral defense agreement with Egypt led Britain and the United States to promulgate regional defense organizations instead. The latter included the Middle East Command (MEC) in October 1951 and the Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO) in 1953. It was believed that the organizations would commit Egypt to regional defense without subjecting it to British dominance. Nevertheless, the Egyptian monarchy and successive revolutionary regimes rejected any formal military link with the West.

Efforts to create a regional defense structure with Egypt at its core ended in May 1953, following a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to the Middle East. Discussions with regional leaders—mainly with Egyptian officials—convinced Dulles that there was no chance of including Egypt in a regional defense organization. He suggested that a different country should be the linchpin of the organization, and Iraq seemed a viable alternative.

At the time, Turkey and Iraq were negotiating a mutual defense agreement. Cultural ties between Iraq and Turkey made such a pact a natural union. With tacit encouragement from Washington and with the understanding that the parties to a regional defense organization would be rewarded with military aid, the two governments agreed to expand the treaty and to use it as a platform from which to launch a regional defense organization that would include Turkey, Pakistan, and Iraq. Turkey and Pakistan had signed a defense agreement earlier, so the proposed regional defense organization was a logical extension.

In February 1955 Iraq signed a defense agreement with Turkey, the initial step toward the establishment of what became known as the 1955 Baghdad Pact, which included Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Great Britain. Washington thereupon announced that it would strengthen the Iraqi Army, which stood on the front line against the Soviet Union.

Iraq took a leading role in the initiative, and not simply from fear of the Soviets. It agreed to take part in a Western-oriented regional defense agreement so as to claim regional dominance over Egypt. At the time, Iraq was the only rival to Egypt's leadership in the Arab world. Indeed, the Iraqis deeply resented the establishment of the Arab League under Cairo's auspices and saw an Iraqi-based defense organization, the headquarters of which was to be located in Baghdad, as an effective counterbalance to Egypt's push for regional hegemony.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser did perceive the pact as a challenge to Egypt's position in the Arab world and was still reeling from criticism over the "humiliating clause" in the October 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement that would allow British troops access to Egyptian bases in case of war. Thus, the Egyptian leader fought back by suppressing opponents and adopting a strong Pan-Arab line. He devoted considerable energy to preventing any expansion of the Baghdad Pact. Waving the banner of Pan-Arab nationalism and resorting to manipulation and even violence, Nasser spared no effort to ensure that other Arab states did not come under the Iraqi sphere of influence.

Nasser's struggle against the Baghdad Pact stirred trouble for the pro-Western Jordanian and Lebanese regimes. His agitation reached its zenith in July 1958 when the Iraqi regime was toppled by anti-Western elements, and the Jordanian and Lebanese regimes faced a similar danger. The United States and Britain were determined to prevent Jordan and Lebanon from falling under Nasser's influence, and American and British forces were sent to Beirut and Amman, respectively, in July 1958 to prop up the pro-Western governments. In March 1959 the new Iraqi republic withdrew from the Baghdad Pact, which then became known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). In the end, however, Nasser had his way, as the Baghdad Pact lost its main pillar, Iraq, and never expanded in the way that the United States and Great Britain had envisioned.

David Tal

Further Reading
Podeh, Eli. The Quest for Hegemony in the Arab World: The Struggle over the Baghdad Pact. Leiden, Netherlands: L. J. Brill, 1995.

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