The clash of great powers to control the Middle East, particularly between the US and the USSR neither began after the end of WWII nor ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Today, China, the US, Russia, and Middle Eastern regional powers vie to influence everyday politics and resources. Treasured by foreigners, the region will remain coveted for centuries to come. The three major elements that shaped Middle Eastern history for thousands of years will not disappear: its geographic location the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, as the region in between north and south and east and west; as cradle to the three major monotheistic religions, where it has radiated an absolutely insatiable thirst by world-wide followers to assert presence and control, and, the availability of the world’s largest known oil and gas reserves.
Historically, it was difficult to traverse the Middle East from north to south or east to west. Easy access to the region’s hinterlands were blocked by vast desert areas and mountainous zones. There were no multiple river and later railroad systems, like the ones that shaped trade, development and politics in Europe or in the United States. Instead, control of the key water passageways became critical for foreign powers: Straits of Hormuz –between Iran and Oman, the Bab al-Mandab Straits between Djibouti and Aden for access to the Red Sea, and the Turkish Straits of Dardanelles and the Bosporus, Russia’s pathway to the Mediterranean Sea. Likewise, dominance of the coastlines was strategically advantageous for local and foreign populations; control of the littoral areas from Gaza north to Latakia in Syria was of immense value. A string of two dozen Crusader castles hugged the coastline from Alexandretta in the north to Al-Arish in the south. Once the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and the distance between London and the Arabian/Persian Gulf was reduced by 43 percent, its control was vital for sea traffic through the Middle East. Connecting South Asia and beyond to Mediterranean and Black Sea destinations, the Canal accelerated already tense rivalries between European countries and Russia for influence throughout the Middle East. Spurred on by both secular leaders and religious zeal, European Christian Crusaders fought from the 11th to the late 13th centuries to control key religious holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Capernaum among others close to the Mediterranean coast. When Syrian President Hafez al-Assad explained to Jimmy Carter in 1987 the meaning of a critical Crusader defeat near Jerusalem in 1187, he did not describe the European defeat as a success of Islam over Christianity but as a victory of the Arabs over the West. Assad saw this military success not in religious terms but in nationalist terms, a successful Arab defense against foreign intrusion. Ultimate control and sovereignty over Jerusalem with its religious significance remains a contentious issue at the heart of resolving the present Arab-Israeli conflict.
Singularly influential to the region’s local history were the absence of water sources, with major exceptions—the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates river basins and some mountainous areas—was well as the extraordinary deficiency of cultivable land to sustain the region’s populations beyond levels of subsistent agricultural work. Scarcity of cultivable land and water shaped the region’s political culture. Which tax-farmers, families, tribes, or dynasties controlled land and water determined who was in power and for how long. From the 1860s to the 1950s, those relatively few individuals dominated regional politics; these same elites often affirmed legitimacy for their local rule by collaborating with foreign powers. It happened in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and in North Africa. Twentieth century discoveries of oil and natural gas in exportable amounts markedly altered power structures within the Middle East. Oil-rich countries happened to be population-poor, and population-rich countries were oil-poor. Since the end of WWII and particularly after the 1973 Middle East War, the dynamics of inter-regional politics swung heavily in favor of the oil-rich countries as they acquired vast wealth very quickly. Those countries who literally sat on the largest known oil reserves in the world became highly prized targets for rich and poor countries with unquenchable oil thirsts. Oil availability also spurred inter-regional political backbiting and unending jealousies. Middle Eastern oil exporting countries had enormous influence over oil market prices and a veritable endless supply of petro-dollars.
Modern imperialism and colonialism rekindled European and Russian strategic competition for access to and through the Middle East. In 1863, seeking to exercise protection for their Russian Christian Orthodox subjects under the rule of the Ottoman Sultan, Russia was embroiled in disputes with France over control of Palestine’s holy places. As a result, the Crimean War erupted. Foreign engagement in the region grew as the French and British took interest in building the Suez Canal, culminating with British occupation of Egypt in 1881. In the last two decades of the 19th century, Germany steered its geo-political and economic interests eastward into the Ottoman Empire in what was termed, Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East), Britain, France, Germany, and Russia engaged in keen competition with one another for influence over the Ottoman Empire’s assets amidst the empire’s slow demise during the first decades of the 20th century. Competition for access, trade and control of the eastern Mediterranean entwined with the Ottoman Empire’s unraveling, which evolved into the so-called “Eastern Question.” The half decade before World War I was essentially the first manifestations of the modern cold war in the Middle East.
Beyond command over the Suez Canal, Britain expanded its quest for sway not only over Arab lands adjacent to it, but other lands as far east as the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and across the Arabian Peninsula. From the late 19th century through the end of World War II, Britain negotiated dozens of agreements with Arab leaders throughout the region, making alliances that assured British dominance of the Middle East. British officials were blunt about their intentions to dominate the Middle East. Lord Curzon, who became British Viceroy in India, classified the Middle Eastern areas as “pieces on a chessboard.” D.G. Hogarth, later of England’s Arab Bureau in Cairo, called the Middle East an “intermediate land, a thoroughfare” to be controlled. The French placed their cultural presence and strategic advance in the areas of North Africa, Lebanon and Syria.
With Britain and France victorious over the Ottoman Empire and over its ally Germany in WWI, the stage was set for the next three decades for London and Paris to exercise virtual uncontested dominance over the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. World War I was bookended by fierce public discussions and multiple secret agreements about trade, shipping access, and land control rights in the Middle East, as evidenced in the Suez Convention (1888), Constantinople Agreement (1915), Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), and Montreux Convention (1936).
Seeking to secure port access and economic relevance, a strategic priority that extended from Catherine the Great in the middle 18th century to Vladimir Putin, Russian and Soviet leaders have perennially fought for access to and through the Dardanelles and Black Sea to the Mediterranean’s open waters. During the WWI period, Zionist leaders intentionally engaged with Russian counterparts to secure support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, knowing of Russian strategic interest in the Middle East, and offering themselves as friends to Russian leaders in return for support of a national home.
As World War II ended, the Cold War between the US and USSR raged across the globe. It was waged by proxies and allies in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and in the Caribbean. It reached major points of direct Great Power confrontation during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and teetered on the brink of a nuclear confrontation at the end of the 1973 October War. The Cold War that played out in the Middle East during the second half the 20th century was but a very short moment in the long history of the Middle East, where outside powers fought for influence over what they considered essential strategic, economic, and emotional needs.
In 1947, Soviet and Russian leaders regarded the newly forming Jewish state as a means to hasten British departure from Egypt, Palestine, and other parts of the Middle East. Moscow endorsed the 1947 UN partition plan to create Arab and Jewish states in Palestine, and then recognized Israel immediately after its founding in May 1948. The US State Department bluntly told President Truman that it feared a Jewish state’s creation because so many of its recent immigrants who had hailed from Russia might tilt favorably toward Moscow. With deep worry about a burgeoning Soviet-Israeli relationship, Truman dispatched a special envoy to Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. Truman embraced Israel to be sure that it would align with American democratic values and remain engaged with America’s large Jewish population. Truman and Eisenhower both feared growing Soviet influence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Both presidents issued strong presidential doctrines, Truman in 1947 and Eisenhower in 1956 respectively urging containment of Moscow’s offensive forays around the world, particularly those in the Middle East.
Egyptian President Nassar had chased the British out of Suez in 1956. By then, Moscow was providing Egypt with military, technical and economic aid. In 1958, when Nassar sought to influence Lebanese politics, Washington saw it as an overt attempt by Moscow to spread Soviet influence there. It was viewed as a direct challenge to Eisenhower’s doctrine, which promised military or economic aid to any Middle Eastern country that resisted Communist/Soviet aggression. The landing of US marines in Lebanon in 1958 was undertaken precisely to prevent Egyptian President Nassar from spreading Moscow’s influence there.
By the early 1950s, the Soviet Union had reacted to Israel’s alignment with the United States by establishing strong alliances and influence with Israel’s Arab neighbors—including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and with numerous Palestinian organizations. Egypt, Syria and Libya possessed additional geographical advantages for the USSR because each possessed potential and actual port facilities for Moscow’s naval fleets. By 1953, the Soviet Union cut diplomatic ties with Israel. Israel and the Soviet Union renewed relations under Khrushchev’s administration, yet tensions lingered. Israel engaged in numerous secretive missions to extract crucial Cold War intelligence for the United States. For Israel, from the 1950s forward, Moscow’s capacity for nefarious actions, aside from supporting a unified Arab world led by Nasser, represented the greatest physical threat to the Jewish state. Simultaneously, Washington grew closer to Israel because Arab leaders like Nasser refused to become Washington’s ally. Moscow’s dominant leadership over its eastern European allies shaped Israel’s acrimonious diplomatic relationships with those countries, apart from Romania and Yugoslavia that went their own separate courses with Jerusalem.
Over several decades, leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow provided vast quantities of weaponry and resources to Israel’s Arab neighbors. It openly supported Palestinian Arab terrorism against Israel and evolved into Israel’s greatest diplomatic adversary at the United Nations and internationally. Having provided arms and military training to Arab states, used ultimately against Israel in the June 1967 War, 1969-1970 War of Attrition, and the October 1973 War, Israel feared potential Russian intervention in these Arab-Israeli confrontations. Moscow was responsible for choreographing the infamous 1975 UN Resolution that defined Zionism as racism. Moscow again broke diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 War, not restoring them until 1991, just prior to the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference. Moscow’s perpetually fraught relations with Israel and an intentioned United States policy to exclude Moscow from Arab-Israeli negotiations kept Moscow out of American dominated Arab-Israeli mediation of the conflict. From the 1967 War, the United States took great pleasure that weapons supplied by Moscow to the Arabs were bested by arms provided in part by the United States to the Israeli army. The Middle East, like other parts of the world evolved into one of the Cold War’s tense and violent battlegrounds between Moscow and Washington. Each had its friends, clients, proxies, and competitions that survived the fall of the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia’s strategic objectives for the region were the same as its predecessor state: access to and through the Middle East, warm water ports in the eastern Mediterranean, still seeking political and economic influence over parts of the region. As a major exporter of oil, Russia needed to influence pricing and production. For the second half of the twentieth century, Moscow inserted into the Israeli-Palestinian dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 2020, it maintains pragmatic diplomatic associations with Hamas, Fatah, the PLO and the PA, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
While both Russia and Israel have similar interests in containing Iranian adventurism in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Russian President Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have strengthened ties, diplomatically and personally. Pragmatic engagement between the leaders reflects common interests. For Israel, engaging the Soviet Union even at the end of the Cold War had a strategic advantage of catalyzing the emigration of more than one million Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. At the beginning of Israel’s history through the present day, the Moscow-Jerusalem relationship is a pragmatic one; however, for most of Israel’s existence, Moscow was unquestionably an international diplomatic challenge and feared great power.
The Cold War in the Middle East between the US-USSR contributed simultaneously to Israel’s national security and to its worst fears. In 1956 and again during the June 1967 War, Israel’s Minister of defense feared Soviet military intervention on behalf of the Egyptian army. During the 1970 War of Attrition over Suez, Israel shot down several Soviet aircraft, and again Israel feared their intervention at the end of the October 1973 War on behalf of Egypt. In Moscow’s alliance with Arab states from the 1950s through the 1980s resulted in quickening Washington’s embrace of Israel as a trusted ally, friend, and ultimately a strategic partner. The US became the key Arab-Israeli negotiating process mediator, essentially Israel’s lawyer in many of the negotiations that unfolded. The Cold War thus greatly contributed to the United States becoming Israel’s most important and constant source of economic aid, military supplies, and international diplomatic support. Smoldering embers of the Cold War remain in the region in 2020. As America under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have slowly pulled back America’s presence in the Middle East during the first two decades of the 2000s, competition for influence and presence has sharpened between China and the US as well as between proxies and friends of Russia and the US. The current version of the Cold War is now multi-polar with Europe the dominant force in the region a century ago, notably absent, while regional powers like Turkey, Iran, and Israel vie intensely for influence and hegemony.
Ken Stein, August 2020
1947 Gromyko, Andrei, “Remarks to the UN Special Committee on Palestine,” https://israeled.org/resources/documents/remarks-by-soviet-foreign-minister-andrei-gromyko/
1947 Truman Doctrine, https://israeled.org/resources/documents/1947-truman-doctrine/
1947 UNGA (Partition) Resolution 181, https://israeled.org/resources/documents/unga-resolution-181/
1948 George Kennan, US Government’s Position on the Future of Palestine –February 1948, https://israeled.org/resources/documents/us-governments-future-position-palestine/
1956 Eisenhower Doctrine https://israeled.org/resources/documents/eisenhower-doctrine/