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9-08-2015, 22:28

THE STRUGGLE FOR PREDOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

One common bond between the Arab nations was hostility to Israel. Beyond this the rivalries between the Arab rulers, the old and the new, led to bewildering diplomatic manoeuvres, coups and changes of sides, some even secretly securing Israeli assistance. The outside powers and the Cold War further complicated what were rapidly changing alignments in the Middle East after 1956. There, international, regional and internal struggles for predominance have created continuing war and conflict. The Anglo-French debacle at Suez raised Nasser’s prestige enormously. But he was handicapped by Egypt’s poverty and lack of valuable resources such as oil; indebted more and more to the Soviet Union to pay for new weapons, Egypt had to pledge its only important cash crop, cotton, in return. The rapid growth of the population meant that increased production hardly improved the lot of the peasants and the urban poor. Nor did the Aswan High Dam deliver the promised transformation of the Egyptian peasantry. But externally Egypt looked as if it might assume a powerful place in the Middle East. The pan-Arab cause appeared to be in the ascendant when Syria in 1958 initiated steps to unite with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. Other Arab nations were invited to join. But Syria was as poor as Egypt and the union was largely one of paper only. The only other state to join was the poorest of all the Arab states, Yemen. There was no geographical contiguity between these three nations. The union did not last long: in September 1961 the pro-Nasserites were overthrown in a military coup in Syria, which thereupon left the United Arab Republic. It was no serious loss, but the Yemen connection proved very costly for Egypt. In 1963 civil war broke out in the Yemen Arab Republic. The hereditary rulers were backed by Saudi Arabia, and the officers who had rebelled looked to Moscow and Egypt for support. Egypt despatched some 70,000 troops eventually and the fighting dragged on, a costly drain on the Egyptian treasury. The other Yemen, which comprised what had from 1956 to 1967 been Britain’s Aden and hinterland, turned itself into the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. (Unification of the two Yemens was eventually proclaimed in May 1990. The new state was named the Republic of Yemen.) To complicate matters further, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia were sworn enemies and at war by proxy in the Yemen, Saudi Arabia supported Egypt in its conflict with Israel. But, until rearmed, Nasser could not contemplate another war with Israel. For ten years raids into Israel from Egyptian territory ceased. It was an armed peace. Nor was there any attempt to stop Israeli commerce from using the seaport of Eilat and passing down the Gulf of Aqaba through the Straits of Tiran. The passage was guaranteed by France, Britain and the US. The Sinai had been handed back to Egypt after 1956; a United Nations force policed the border and was stationed in the Sinai Desert on the Egyptian side of the Egyptian–Israeli border. In reality, Nasser’s position after Suez was a weak one. There was no hiding the fact of his defeat by Israel. No one realised this more clearly than the astute King Hussein of Jordan. Before Suez he had been forced by powerful groups in his country to denounce the West and to embrace Egypt. After Nasser’s defeat by Israel, Egypt was in no condition to interfere. In April 1957 Hussein foiled a coup and declared martial law, assuming personal power with the support of the army. With Egypt and Syria already relying on Soviet support, the US stepped into the vacuum left by the British after Suez. The so-called Eisenhower Doctrine, approved by Congress and signed by the president in March 1957, involved the US more deeply in the Middle East. The US offered economic and military aid and empowered the president to use armed force to assist any nation in the Middle East requesting such help against armed aggression ‘from any country controlled by international communism’. Since the Cold War was not the root cause of instability and conflict in the Middle East, the Doctrine did not contribute a great deal to peace. For Arab leaders to embrace the US openly as friend and protector in the 1960s and 1970s was made virtually impossible by American support for Israel. Only Lebanon, with a Christian non- Arab president, responded positively to Eisenhower. To counter the Soviet alignment with Egypt and Syria, Eisenhower ordered the US Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean and sent financial aid to Jordan. The US also tried to destabilise the regime in Syria. This attempt failed. Worse still, the West’s most reliable ally, Iraq, changed regimes and left the Baghdad Pact. In July 1958 a bloody revolution broke out in Iraq, and the king and his chief pro-Western minister were brutally killed. General Abdel Kassem, with local communist help, seized power. In Jordan, King Hussein was greatly alarmed and, fearing for his throne, asked for British help. Britain sent troops and Hussein held shakily on to power. For a time too, in response to a call for assistance from the Lebanese president, US marines were landed from the Sixth Fleet. As it turned out, it was not these applications of the Eisenhower Doctrine that constrained the Soviets in the Middle East, but the rivalry of the Arab nations among themselves. Fundamental to inter- Arab conflict was the hostility between Iraq and Egypt. Nasser interpreted communist support for Iraq’s General Kassem as an unfriendly act towards Egypt. By the spring of 1959 Kassem denounced Nasser, and Nasser denounced Kassem. Ultimately neither the Soviet Union nor the US could enlist the Middle Eastern nations in the Cold War. The leaders of these nations were primarily concerned with their internal and regional conflicts; they made use of Cold War antagonisms to further their own interests. The naval-base facilities that the Soviet navy acquired over the years in Egypt, Syria, Libya and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as well as on the Red Sea entailed great costs directly and indirectly. Foreign naval bases, moreover, are dependent on the changing attitudes and policies of the leaders in power in these unstable countries. The Soviet Union’s expensive policy was singularly unsuccessful. In one respect, though, it was a major player in the Middle East and that was in its role of supplying arms to Israel’s principal enemies, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. This, in turn, stimulated the US and other Western nations to try to replace the Soviet Union as the provider of arms. Inevitably the Middle East became a danger to world peace. Israel, despite its historic roots, is a new country whose development in the post-war world has been astonishing. The great majority of the people who built the nation had left a Europe whose soil had been soaked with Jewish blood. The young fighters and pioneers who had reached what was Palestine before 1947 had lost their families in Hitler’s Holocaust and in Poland, even after the war had come to an end. The diverse European Jews speaking no common language were forced into a nation sharing one purpose above all others: they would never again be defenceless. They are bound together by the common memory of the Holocaust when no nation cared enough to try to save Jewish men, women and children. The immigrants to Palestine did not come to empty lands. The Jews settled in towns which then flourished and prospered. There was enough room for Arabs and Jews in Palestine. There were many who believed they could live well together, but instead the Jewish immigration ended in conflict and a struggle for predominance. The Arabs, displaced from their land, were filled with resentment and hatred for the new settlers from other parts of the world. There were many Jews who claimed the land as theirs by historical right, looking back to the kingdom of David and its capital city, Jerusalem, established a thousand years before Christ. But there had been no Jewish state for 2,000 years since its extinction in Roman times. Jews had been dispersed (the diaspora) to live in the Christian and Islamic world. Their religion and culture survived and with them the belief that there would one day be a return to the Holy Land. An orthodox Jewish community had constituted the largest single religious group in Jerusalem since 1840. (The others were the Christians and Muslims.) It was persecution in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century and Nazi persecution and Soviet discrimination in the twentieth that created a mass migration of Jews from central and Eastern Europe. Until then Zionism had attracted only a small minority of European Jews; the majority were proud to be Germans, Poles and Hungarians. (The Jews of Britain, France and the US are still proud citizens of their countries, even if they materially support Israel at the same time.) The early pioneers from central and Eastern Europe have provided the great majority of Israel’s political leaders up to the present day. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, and David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister and dominant political leader until 1963, were both born in Russian Poland. Golda Meir was born in Kiev, and after she and her parents had emigrated to the US in 1906, she settled in 1921 at the age of eighteen in a kibbutz; prominent in politics and diplomacy she became prime minister in 1969 on the death of Levi Eshkol. Menachem Begin’s family perished in Poland; he had headed the Irgun and uncompromisingly claimed the whole biblical land of Israel. The strong political influence of central and Eastern European Jews is not surprising. They formed the largest group of immigrants from 1903 to 1939, some 200,000. In the 1930s a new wave of immigrants from Germany, about 50,000, entered Palestine. The majority were professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, traders or the children of middle-class parents, whereas the majority of Eastern and central European Jews were skilled workers or farmers. It is perhaps surprising that the German-descended Israelis have not played a larger political role so far. After 1945 the survivors of the death camps who came to Palestine were again mainly Jews from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The next large-scale migration after the war for independence came from the Middle East, the oriental Jews, of Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and the Yemen. They were the least educated and as a group are economically and socially the least privileged. After three generations the gap between the European and oriental Jews remains wide and is only slowly narrowing, despite common service in the army, which is a great leveller. The Jews of the former Soviet Union provided the largest group of immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s. The population of Israel, excluding the territories conquered in the 1967 war, grew almost six times from 750,000 in 1948 to 2.8 million by 1968 and to 6.4 million in 2001. Not all are Jews. In 1948–9 some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs fled to neighbouring Arab countries and became refugees in camps, but 150,000 remained in their homes in Israel; by 2001 they had grown to over 1 million of whom 966,000 were Muslims mainly Sunni and 134,000 were Christians. In the West Bank and Gaza there are about 200,000 Jewish settlers and more than 3 million Arab Palestinians. In Israel, the Arab Muslims were clinging to their land as peasant farmers and poor villagers, economically the great majority remained disadvantaged and from 1949 until the 1960s, their loyalty suspected, they were placed under many restrictions, curfews and military rule. Yet outwardly they were accorded the civic rights of all Israeli citizens, including the right to vote for the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Then in the 1960s a policy to integrate them was followed with some success. The Palestinian Arab Israelis have remained a separate community, sympathetic to the Pale- stinians denied self-determination in the occupied lands of the West Bank and Gaza (after the 1967 war), but they remain Israelis striving for equality, their economic well-being far higher now than that of the Palestinian Arabs outside the State of Israel, with a sizeable middle class. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, with a multiplicity of parties already well established in Palestine before independence. The dominant party forming the core of all coalitions until 1977 was the Labour Party (Mapai), the leftist Mapam never enjoying anywhere near the same support. The Herut belonged to the rightwing group of parties. The third minority group was composed of the religious parties, who wished to expand religious law in the Jewish state; their influence was often greater than their numbers in the Knesset would have justified because they could demand a price for agreeing to join the coalition governments formed after elections. The bargaining that preceded the coalition agreements – especially in the 1980s when the adherence of minor parties became crucial – added cynicism and disillusionment to the democratic process of Israeli politics. The biggest challenge facing Israeli governments at home has been and remains how to absorb thousands of destitute immigrants. Israel is open to all Jews who wish to settle there. The costs are huge and, when added to the immense burdens of defence, present difficulties of budgetary management unique among the developed countries. The Labour Party, a pragmatic party quite willing to compromise socialist principles, followed policies encouraging capitalist investment. Economic growth has been one of the most rapid in the developed world, financed by loans, grants, gifts (especially from the US) and German reparations payments. This has, however, burdened the economy with a large external debt. It has also created an Israeli dependence on the goodwill of the US, a relationship reinforced by a dependence on weapons from the West, with first France and then the US supplying the tanks and the aircraft essential for Israel’s security. The brilliant military commanders of Israel’s victories in war play an influential role in Israeli politics, readily exchanging active army service with Cabinet posts in government. Moshe Dayan was a successful leader in war and a hawk in peace from the creation of Israel to the Yom Kippur War in 1973; General Yitzhak Rabin took over as prime minister from Golda Meir after serving as chief of staff in the Six-Day War of 1967; General Yigal Allon, Dayan’s rival as a military hero, served as foreign minister in the 1970s and General Ariel Sharon, the military hero of the 1973 war when his tanks crossed the Suez Canal and trapped the Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai, became a dominant member of Menachem Begin’s Cabinet and masterminded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and later served as a hardline prime minister. Israel enjoyed a breathing space of ten years after the Suez–Sinai War of 1956. Neither Nasser nor Hussein wished to plunge his country into another war with Israel for the sake of the Palestinians. Indeed, the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state was not part of the programme of any of the Arab national leaders. But when Nasser’s bid for Arab leadership and his efforts to export his revolution met with resolute opposition from the royal leaders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and with hostility in Syria and Iraq, the only pan-Arab appeal left to him was to emphasise the common enemy – Israel. Radio Cairo broadcast hate campaigns against the Jewish state, and President Nasser himself proclaimed in a speech in Alexandria on 26 July 1959, ‘I announce from here, on behalf of the United Arab Republic people, that this time we will exterminate Israel.’ On 27 May 1967, nine days before the start of the Six-Day War, he declared, ‘Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.’ No less extreme was the president of Iraq on 31 May 1967: ‘The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map.’ These bloodcurdling speeches can be dismissed as public rhetoric, since they are belied by the much more cautious attitudes otherwise displayed by Arab leaders. But for Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem it was clear that their very survival would be threatened if ever they should prove the weaker in the continuing conflict, for the Arab nations refused to make peace or to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Israel’s response to Arab enmity is to place the whole nation in arms. A professional nucleus of officers and NCOs is supplemented by conscripts: every man and woman has to serve for two to three years; then follows a long period in the reserve (for men to the age of forty-nine) with annual battle training. The standing army of some 80,000 can in time of emergency be quickly mobilised into a force of 300,000. The army, the air force and the small navy, in a constant state of readiness for war, have always proved effective when put to the test. Arab Israelis are not conscripted but a minority have fought in the Israeli army. While Nasser rebuilt and re-equipped the Egyptian army with Soviet help, Israel continued to strengthen its relations with France, a source of some of the best weapons and aircraft. The French also helped Israel to build up a nuclear potential with the construction of the Dimona reactor. The unsigned alliance with the US, however, remained the sheet anchor of Israel’s international security. After seven relatively peaceful years, in 1964 Israeli–Arab tensions once more began to grow. The Israelis completed a project to divert some of the waters of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, which sparked a belligerent Syrian response. Nasser felt obliged to fulfil the role of pan-Arab leader and summoned a conference in Cairo in 1964. The Arab nations were not ready for war, but 1964 was notable for the endorsement given later in the year to Yasser Arafat and for the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Coupled with Arab non-recognition of Israel this was an ominous development. But Nasser had too many problems at home – attempting to advance the economy, fighting in the Yemen and losing US economic aid – to be thinking of any immediate resumption of war. The most extreme Arab regime was the Syrian. Syria’s politics consisted of unstable power plays between rival groups. In 1966 the most radical wing of the Ba’ath seized power and sought to consolidate its grip by taking the lead in fighting for the liberation of Palestine. Syrian gunfire harassed Israeli settlements on the frontier, armed Palestinians belonging to Fatah (the PLO’s largest fedayeen guerrilla group) and supported by Syria, infiltrated Israel during the autumn and winter of 1966–7, raided settlements and set off explosives. The Israelis sent retaliatory raids into the territory of their Arab neighbours, sometimes to attack Palestinian bases, sometimes hitting innocent Arabs in Jordan and the Lebanon and causing many deaths. Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt were drifting into an all-out war. Nasser, albeit hesitantly, escalated the crisis, unable as self-styled leader of the Arab world to appear to follow in Syria’s militant footsteps. The Israeli government was also cautious, not believing that it really faced an imminent war. The Soviets, meanwhile, were stirring up the Egyptians with intelligence reports that Israel was readying for an all-out invasion of Syria, though the Israelis were probably only preparing another punitive strike against Syria for supporting Palestinian raids. Nasser moved army units into the Sinai in mid- May 1967, and terminated the right of UN observer troops to remain on Egypt’s Sinai frontier with Israel. But his most decisive hostile challenge, on 22 May 1967, was to close the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Then, on 30 May, King Hussein placed his troops under Egyptian command. Washington tried to ease the tension, but in Israel the Rubicon was crossed when on 1 June the moderate prime minister, Levi Eshkol, appointed General Dayan, who had been chief of staff in 1956, to be defence minister; Dayan insisted that Israel had to defend itself by war. On 4 June Iraq joined the Jordanian–Egyptian military pact. Early in the morning on 5 June 1967, the Israelis struck. The Six-Day War astonished the world by its demonstration of the immense superiority of the Israeli armed forces. Within twentyfour hours the air forces of Egypt and its allies had been destroyed. The Egyptian pilots had not been sufficiently trained and the Soviet pilots stationed on their airbases stood aside. After six days it was all over. Israeli divisions had reached the Suez Canal and had raced down to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, once again occupying Sharm al-Sheikh, which commanded the passage through the Straits of Tiran. Israeli forces also occupied the Gaza Strip, which was inhabited by Palestinians and under Egyptian sovereignty. Jordan joined in the war despite Israeli pleas to stay out. Israeli troops then fought house-tohouse battles against Jordanian forces, suffering heavy casualties before capturing East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the north, the Israelis broke through the Syrian defences and occupied the Golan Heights, from which Syrian artillery had shelled Israeli settlements. Israel’s victories against Egypt, Syria and Jordan were complete and overwhelming. Everything had gone according to the Israeli military plan. A major portion of the highly professional and efficient Israeli force was composed of part-time soldiers who spent eleven out of twelve months as civilians. It was an astonishing achievement that left the Israelis elated and, with hindsight, over-confident. The 1967 victory changed Israel for a generation, creating opportunities and problems not solved to the present day. King Hussein’s decision to join Egypt cost him the territory of the West Bank, which Jordan had captured in 1948–9; before then it had formed a part of the British Palestine Mandate. Israel was now faced with deciding what to do with the 845,000 hostile Palestinian Arabs living there. When they had been Jordanian citizens they had been Jordan’s problem. Under Israeli occupation they demanded separate nationhood. The possibility of a ‘Jordanian solution’ for the time receded as Israel’s capture of the Old City of Jerusalem and its determination to retain an undivided Jerusalem as its capital blocked any peaceful arrangement with Jordan despite the large Palestinian population in post-war Jordan. Adding the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, the Israelis had now assumed responsibility for more than 1 million Arab Palestinians. Unlike their predecessors in 1948–9, the Arabs had not fled, but neither could they be reconciled to living under foreign occupation. The Israelis at first regarded the occupied territories as bargaining counters to attain peace; security required that they retain a relatively small part; the rest would be returned in exchange for peace treaties. Then Israel would enjoy secure borders and peace. It did not work out that way, though. Years later, it is true, peace was secured on this basis with Egypt. But the longer Israel occupied Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the stronger grew the voices of those who claimed the territories as Israel’s historic land and the more Jewish settlements expanded. The famous UN Resolution 242 passed by the Security Council on 22 November 1967, despite its ambiguities and the different Arab and Israeli interpretations, provided a framework for peace negotiations. It promised Israel secure frontiers, it required it to withdraw from the conquered territories and stated the need for a just solution for the Palestinian refugees. But it was only a framework. There was no timetable for implementation; and no enforcement provision. Nasser had already in September 1967, at a conference of the Arab heads of state in Khartoum, made an uncompromising demand for complete withdrawal of the Israelis and insisted that there could be no peace with Israel or negotiations without recognition of ‘the rights of the Palestinian People in their own country’. The Arab nations did not move from this stand until Egypt broke ranks in 1977. The Israelis in turn were not prepared to give up what they had gained without something in return. Their interpretation of Resolution 242 is that it assures Israel safe and secure frontiers and that consequently the extent of its withdrawal has first to be negotiated between Israel and the Arab nations involved: such negotiations must precede any withdrawal. The Israelis rejected withdrawal prior to possible negotiations. It would take another war before Egypt was ready to negotiate and conclude a separate peace with Israel. But in the intervening years the influence of the right in Israel grew, the influence of politicians like Begin who passionately argued against giving up the territories of the West Bank, biblical Israel (‘Judaea’ and ‘Samaria’). Nasser proclaimed a war of attrition against Israel in 1968; Palestinian guerrilla raids and sporadic Egyptian attacks forced Israel to remain on constant alert; the two sides also shelled each other across the Suez Canal until a ceasefire was agreed in August 1970. This provided only a breathing space. In September 1970, Nasser died. His death was mourned by millions of Egyptians and Arabs throughout the Middle East. He was not a scheming dictator, the reincarnation of Hitler, as he was seen at the time by some in Britain and France. In contrast to leaders elsewhere in the Middle East in his time and later, in Syria, Iran and Iraq, he was not a tyrant, killing thousands of opponents. Nor, unlike his royal predecessors, was he corrupt. He genuinely wanted to raise the standard of living of the Egyptian masses, but his state socialism and police security brought only order, without prosperity. He was defeated in his aims by population growth and by the costly wars he fought against Israel and in the Yemen. He fought to restore Arab pride and, despite his defeat, was paradoxically triumphant in achieving this wider goal. In the West, the Egyptians and other Arabs had been regarded as a lesser species of humanity, servile and incompetent. All that changed in 1956 when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and humiliated Britain and France. He served notice on the feudal royals left in the Arab world that the time was coming to an end when they could rule without the participation of the people, but half a century later they are still there. All of this boosted Arab self-esteem, without which there can be no peace between Israel and its neighbours in the Middle East. Nasser’s attitude to the Cold War, too, can now be judged in a new perspective. He manipulated Moscow and Washington to supply him with arms and aid but supported the neutrality of the Third World, the poorer countries, which could only lose and not gain by becoming involved in the conflicts of the superpowers. Egypt’s next president Anwar Sadat, after the failure of the US to bring the two sides together, believed he was faced either with accepting Israel’s conditions of peace or with fighting once more. He chose the latter. On 6 October 1973, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Syrian and Egyptian forces attacked Israel. Until hours before the attack was launched, the Israelis had not expected an all-out war and the Cabinet had rejected another pre-emptive strike. Mobilisation of reserves was ordered too late. The initial attacks broke through the much smaller Israeli forces, and it was not until the civilians were mobilised that the Syrians could be halted in the north. The fighting against the Egyptians, whose tanks had successfully crossed into the Sinai, proved far more difficult. Only when General Sharon daringly crossed to the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal with Israel’s armour on 15 October and so cut off the 100,000-strong Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai were the Israelis able to take the offensive. But the Israelis, after suffering early losses of their fighters, brought down by Soviet-supplied missiles, had succeeded in turning the tables on Syria and Egypt only after receiving replacement fighters and large quantities of arms flown in from the US. The unwritten Israeli–French alliance had ended after 1967, the French being now more concerned to get on better terms with the Arab states; and neither Britain nor West Germany was prepared to supply the arms the Israelis desperately needed. This reticence did not help the Western Europeans much. The Arab oil states expressed their solidarity with Egypt and Syria by imposing an oil embargo on the US and on all the other countries that did not support the Arab cause. Western Europe was hit by an oil shortage and large price rises. Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state, was masterminding US policy. President Nixon was in the grip of the Watergate crisis but he gave his full backing to Kissinger’s policy of working for a durable Arab–Israeli peace, ready to assist Israel only to the extent of enabling it to defend itself effectively but not so much as to produce an Israeli victory as overwhelming as that in 1967. In that respect the US and the Soviet Union held the same views, and Brezhnev and Kissinger and Nixon cooperated well during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War to bring about a ceasefire. On 20 October, Kissinger flew to Moscow at Brezhnev’s invitation. The two superpowers agreed to present a ceasefire resolution to the Security Council on the 22nd, which Syria, Egypt and Israel accepted after some Soviet and US arm-twisting. Yet two days later, during the night of 24–5 October, the US placed its forces in readiness for war. After such fruitful cooperation with the Kremlin, how had events taken this turn? It seemed like the Cuban missile crisis over again. Was the world on the brink of the Third World War? The Israelis were the culprits initially, in that they failed to observe the truce completely; in an attempt to improve their military position they tightened the noose around the Egyptian Third Army. Brezhnev responded with a proposal to the US that a Soviet–American peacekeeping force be sent. Kissinger did not wish to see Soviet troops in the Middle East, but the forceful US reaction was to the latter part of Brezhnev’s proposal, a threat that if the US did not agree then ‘we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider taking appropriate steps unilaterally. Israel cannot be allowed to get away with the violations.’ US intelligence at the same time detected evidence of Soviet military preparations. Kissinger responded with a tough rejection, and US forces around the world were placed on intermediate war alert. But on 25 October Kissinger sent an olive branch: if Brezhnev abandoned the idea of unilateral action, there would be no need for a confrontation at all. Brezhnev climbed down and that same day joined with the US in sponsoring another United Nations ceasefire resolution setting up a UN peacekeeping force that would exclude both US and Soviet contingents. In return the US ensured that this time the Israelis would stop all hostilities. The Third Egyptian Army was thus rescued, and Egypt and Syria saved from further humiliation. The 1973 war was no walk-over for Israel. This time its losses in men and material were heavy: 5,500 dead and wounded and 800 tanks destroyed. Egypt’s and Syria’s losses were greater in absolute terms but not in proportion to their larger populations. Yet out of the Yom Kippur War developed positive consequences. Egypt and Syria had to accept realistically that they could not hope to inflict a total defeat on Israel, but their early successes had restored Arab pride. For the Israelis a state of no peace imposed harsh burdens and grave risks. They were now more prepared to return Arab territory if they could thereby obtain peace. For the Americans, the Arab–Israeli conflict seemed only to provide opportunities for Soviet intrusion in the Middle East. From this matrix of interests, US diplomacy succeeded – with the signature of the Camp David Accords in September 1978 – in bringing Egypt and Israel together to agree a peace treaty. It is the cornerstone on which a comprehensive peace still awaits to be built a quarter of a century later. Amid the turmoil of inter-Arab conflicts and the Arab–Israeli tensions and wars, of Soviet interventions in the Middle East and Iraq’s anti-Western policies, the West had one powerful, oil-rich and secure ally in Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Until Islamic Iran forced itself into the news in the 1980s, the peoples of the Western world had only the haziest notions about the country and its people. Iran lies between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and has borders with no less than five countries: to the north the Soviet Union, to the west Turkey and Iraq and to the east Afghanistan and Pakistan. It occupies the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf; on the northern shore Iraq has an outlet along the estuary Shatt al-Arab; from the north down the western shore lies the oil-rich sheikhdom of Kuwait, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the sheikhdoms of Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. It is oil that gives this region its significance, supplying much of the needs of Western Europe and Japan, with additional exports to the US, the Middle East and Africa. A glance at a map reveals Iran’s and Iraq’s key positions. Iran is a vast country of 627,000 square miles, five times the land area of Britain, though half of it is desert. In the Middle East (not counting Pakistan or Turkey) only Egypt has as large a population. Given Iran’s size, its oil resources and population, the heritage of an ancient civilisation and the history of a once great Persian Empire, its rulers might understandably dream of making their country a great power once more. But Iran (known as Persia until it was renamed in 1935) had first to free itself from foreign domination. The oil and Iran’s strategic position on the path to India had encouraged Britain to dominate southern Persia and the Gulf, agreeing to a division of interests that left Russia dominant in the north. Never genuinely independent, the country was occupied once more in 1941 by British and Russian troops for fear that the Shah would throw in his lot with the Germans. He was forced to abdicate and his son succeeded him. During the post-war years the nationalist movement led by Mossadeq tried to win true independence and to loosen the control of the British oil giants over the country’s main resource. The British government resisted and there was new turmoil, which was brought to an end in 1953 with the help once more of foreign intervention. The Americans and British helped the Shah to oust Mossadeq and the nationalist politicians and to stage a coup. In the eyes of the nationalists the Shah now owed his authority to foreign intervention, thus further diminishing Iran’s sovereignty and independence. In 1955 Iran joined the Western alliance – the Baghdad Pact (renamed the Central Treaty Organisation after Iraq’s revolution in 1958 and its subsequent departure), characterising the Shah still more as a lackey of the Anglo-American ‘imperialists’. Iranian nationalist fervour could never reconcile itself to the ‘Western’ Shah. Yet the Shah, though he owed his assumption of real power to American and British assistance in 1953, had every intention of asserting Iran’s independence and creating a military base for new greatness. As his rule grew increasingly dictatorial, he appointed Iran’s parliament and imprisoned politicians if they showed any sign of opposition. He established the National Information and Security Organisation, known as SAVAK, a security police that collected information on opponents, often imprisoning, torturing and even murdering them. American attempts to influence the Shah and to persuade him to introduce democratic reforms, using economic and military aid as levers, had little effect. The Shah made token gestures in response. Western diplomats were by no means ignorant of the Shah’s misrule, or of the corruption of the court and its dependants, but in Washington and London no alternative policy to supporting the Shah was acceptable. If a revolution should topple the Shah’s regime, the country’s mass poverty would, so it was thought, lead to a seizure of power by radicals and communists. The disturbed state of the Middle East had already allowed the Soviet Union to establish bases in Syria and Yemen; Iraq was uncertain and Egypt unstable. So Iran was the bulwark protecting the West’s vital interests in the Persian Gulf. What the West did not foresee was the Islamic revolution. The public in the West was given a positive image of the Shah. The handsome ruler seated on his aptly named Peacock throne in beautiful uniforms looked every inch a royal and made it easy to forget that his father, a dashing cavalry officer, had seized power in 1921 to become the founder of the Pahlavi ‘dynasty’. The lack of blue blood was compensated for by pomp and circumstance, which reached the height of folly when in 1971 the Shah staged a sumptuous celebration attended by international dignitaries to mark the anniversary of ‘two and a half millennia’ of the Persian Empire. The pageant, staged to impress the visitors at Persepolis, ancient capital of the Achaemenian kings of Persia, cost tens of millions of dollars and was televised worldwide. Nevertheless, he was regarded as a firm friend of the West and as a reformer who was dragging his people out of the darkness of ignorance and prejudice into the modern age. As a reformer his record was flawed. Authoritarian and careless of political and human rights, the Shah resorted to brutal repression to preserve his power. In the early 1960s when the Americans were pressing for reforms, the economy was running into trouble and the National Front politicians were growing in strength, the Shah responded by arresting the National Front leaders and, in 1963, organised a national referendum on a comprehensive reform package. It included land reform, a new election law including women’s suffrage, a national literacy corps, profit-sharing and the sale of factories to private industry. The reforms were supposed to establish the Shah as a popular leader and were presented as the Shah– People Revolution. The referendum was rigged. The most formidable opposition now came from religious leaders and their followers, and for the first time the name of one of these, Ruhollah Khomeini, was heard. Students were killed when paratroopers attacked the religious school of Qom where he taught and preached. His re-arrest in June 1963 sparked off an insurrection in Teheran and other towns. The Shah ordered troops and tanks to shoot on the demonstrators and declared martial law. The number killed has never been accurately established: the Shah’s government claimed less than a hundred, but other witnesses speak of thousands. Thousands more were imprisoned. Ayatollah Khomeini was released, but after persisting with his opposition he was, in 1964 at the age of sixty-two, forced to leave Iran. It turned out to be the Shah’s worst mistake. From his exile successively in Turkey, Iraq and Paris, Khomeini was able to send a stream of clandestine propaganda into Iran, uncompromisingly condemning the Shah as an American lackey and his efforts to modernise and Westernise the country as contrary to Islamic law. By the end of his fifteen years of exile Khomeini was recognised by the masses as the spiritual and political leader who was most effectively challenging the Shah’s fitness to rule. In Iran, the Shah kept a tight grip on the country, backed by the military forces on which he lavished money and by SAVAK. He spent a quarter of Iran’s income on purchasing the latest weapons, tanks and planes from the US, though the US administration and Congress were reluctant to gratify all his wishes. The huge increase in oil revenues, especially after the price rises of 1973, gave the Shah the dollars with which to purchase whatever caught his fancy. The West, meanwhile, was tempted to reduce the imbalance of trade caused by the high cost of oil by selling all it could to Iran and the Middle Eastern oil states – who placed arms high on their shopping lists. Successive development plans imposed reforms from above. Land reform deprived absentee landlords of most of their land and more than doubled the number of peasant proprietors of smallholdings. Large agricultural cooperatives were formed, and tractors and fertilisers used. But, as in the Soviet Union, it proved exceedingly difficult to improve agricultural productivity, which continued to rise more slowly than the increase in population. The government official replaced the landlord as the peasant’s boss. Industrial growth, from a low base, was more impressive. New factories, steel mills and assembly plants for motor vehicles were constructed. Education and health services also benefited from large investments, and many Iranian students were sent abroad to Western universities. The statistics reflect a remarkable economic development; what they do not reveal is the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and the social dislocation that these rapid changes produced. The gulf between the privileged elites – higher army officers, administrators and leading merchants – and the masses of urban poor, farmers and labourers remained huge. In the northern parts of Teheran, the shops, hotels and offices catered to the rich and exuded wealth. To the south lay a different world of slums where most of the city’s 4.5 million lived in abject conditions. Many peasants had migrated to Teheran and to other towns, where they turned to the mullahs and the mosques for spiritual guidance and self-respect. In the countryside the income of three-quarters of rural families was so low that malnutrition was widespread. Nor was the small but growing middle class reconciled to the Shah’s authoritarian regime. For thousands of students no worthwhile prospects awaited them on graduation. All sections of society had reasons to resent the Shah’s rule. Yet the speedy weakening of his position, leading to his overthrow in January 1979, came as a surprise. Despite criticisms of Iran’s violations of the democratic process and of human rights, the US still felt that the Shah’s regime was the best guarantor of Western interests in the Persian Gulf. After the British withdrawal as protecting power of the Gulf sheikhdoms in 1971, the Shah with his well-equipped army and air force of some 350,000 men came to be seen as the indispensable policeman of a potentially turbulent region. President Jimmy Carter, who entered the White House in January 1977, shrank from criticising the regime publicly, despite the prominence he gave to human rights. In November 1977 when the Shah visited Washington, with tear gas wafting around the White House lawn from protest demonstrations beyond the gate, Carter fulsomely pledged US support. On his return visit to Teheran in December he praised the Shah in a New Year toast. ‘Iran’, he declared: is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas in the world. . . . This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you. Carter’s support was to cost him dear when the Shah’s opponents came to power. In the West few in authority could imagine how the Shah, at the head of armed forces which owed him everything, could fail to crush any popular protests likely to arise. The Shah could also count on an upper echelon of society who derived their wealth from his economic development and his favours. Ignorance of the dynamics of Iranian society led Western analysts to underestimate the hold of the mullahs over the people and the unrelenting sense of mission of an exiled ayatollah in a Parisian suburb. When the television cameras paid attention to Ayatollah Khomeini, all they showed was an old man in his seventies sitting cross-legged on a carpet. He commanded no army, no government in exile, yet he proved more powerful than the Shah. How did the revolution come about? From the mid-1970s, the Iranian economy did not prosper, despite the large oil income. The oil-price rise of 1973–4 was causing recession in the West and a drop in demand. The consequence was inflation, of food prices particularly; these price rises were most severe for the poor, whose rents in Teheran soared at the same time. Carter had hardly left Teheran early in January 1978 before demonstrations on behalf of Khomeini began in the holy city of Qom. The Shah responded fiercely; police opened fire on the students, some of whom were killed, the first martyrs of the revolution. From then on protests escalated in other cities and in Teheran in March, May and August 1978. Moderates and radicals, the National Front politicians, clerics and merchants were coming together to bring the Shah’s personal rule to an end. In September a large demonstration converged on Jaleh Square in Teheran. The Shah imposed martial law. When the crowds would not disperse, the army started firing indiscriminately. Estimates of the ensuing casualties varied between several hundreds and 2,000. It was a turning point. Strikes spread throughout the country. The revolution was an example of people power, the first of several, to be followed later in the 1980s in South Korea, in the Philippines and in Eastern Europe, where the mass of people prevailed over the firepower of the military and police. The majority of the Shah’s soldiers were conscripts, sickened by the orders to shoot defenceless civilians; some joined the protesters. Rallying around posters of Khomeini, the accepted leader of the masses, the people engaged in a righteous struggle against their oppressive ruler. The Shah, uncertain whether to send in more troops or to try to negotiate with the moderates, lost control. By December 1978, when the US administration was urging the Shah to accept a constitutional monarchy, it was too late. On 16 January 1979 the Shah left the country without formally abdicating, and his departure released an outpouring of joy on the streets of Teheran. In the aftermath, no matter who managed temporarily to gain power in Iran’s government, there was only one leader who really counted and that was the Ayatollah Khomeini. On 1 February 1979 television screens around the world showed him slowly descending from an Air France plane to a delirious reception from the crowds. The first few months of the revolution were grim. Khomeini, the undisputed leader, chose a layman, Mehdi Bazargan, to head the provisional Islamic government. Bazargan was an Islamic scholar and had been an opponent of the Shah’s authoritarian rule. Power was divided. Revolutionary courts sentenced and executed generals of the Shah’s army responsible for the repression. By mid-March sixty-eight leading supporters of the Shah had been executed. On 1 April Khomeini declared the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which had been endorsed by a referendum. Real power lay with the Islamic Revolutionary Council, which took its orders from Khomeini. To ‘protect the revolution’ Khomeini sanctioned the formation of a militia, the Islamic Republican Party. The army and civil service were purged of those who had supported the Shah’s regime, and attempts by Kurdish and Arab minorities to take advantage of the turmoil in order to set out on their own path to independence were put down. Thus was the revolution made secure. Khomeini blamed the Americans for all Iran’s ills and for their support of the Shah’s corrupt regime, and he aroused the masses to see in the US the main danger to the revolution’s success and Iran’s independence. Washington’s efforts to establish normal relations were rejected. Bowing to humanitarian pressures, President Carter permitted the mortally sick Shah to receive medical treatment in New York. The Iranian government demanded his extradition to face charges in Iran. Khomeini supported these demands, urging the Teheran students to widen their attacks against America and Israel. There followed in November 1979 the seizure of the American Embassy by a revolutionary student group and the taking of the American diplomats and secretaries as hostages. Prime Minister Bazargan resigned and the Islamic Revolutionary Council took charge of the government. The US became the Great Satan. The revolution was radicalised and for fourteen months the hostages remained imprisoned. Carter’s attempt in April 1980 to rescue them by sending a special task force secretly to Teheran misfired when three of the eight helicopters developed malfunctions; the raid was aborted but unfortunately two of the rescuing planes crashed on making ready to return, killing eight men; the mission could not any longer be kept secret. The impact on Carter’s electoral chances was devastating. Khomeini had demonstrated that Iran could safely defy the US. Not until the day Carter left the White House were the hostages released to fly home. By then Iran had already been at war for four months with its neighbour Iraq. It was the beginning of the devastating Gulf War that lasted for almost seven years and led to the death of a million young men on both sides, the bloodiest conflict of the Middle East in modern times.

 

 

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