Superpower interests in the Middle East


After the Second World War, the Soviet Union's interests in the Middle East lay in the Northern Tier - Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and so on. Despite economic and political propaganda campaigns, the Soviets failed to win friends in this area and the Northern Tier became more inclined to the West. The Middle East was not a pressing issue for the USSR as she had no need for oil nor Mediterranean access, so the interest in the region was originally to secure borders and generally expand the number of countries sympathetic to Stalin. As the propaganda was spectacularly unsuccessful, in 1953 the USSR adopted a less pressured policy of 'friendship' between nations. Through this, relations improved, but the Northern Tier remained pro West.

The Soviet Union's increased interest in the region in the late 1950s onwards was largely a response and challenge to increased American interests (see below). During the early years of the state of Israel, the Soviets courted her as a plausible ally. Relations cooled however, as much of the immigration into the country was from the US, and America took more of an interest. After the 1952 coup in Egypt, the Soviets took a much more pro Arab line. They signed a treaty of friendship with North Yemen, supplied arms to Egypt and Syria, and held great interest in Iraqi affairs. The peak of Soviet interest and influence was with the peak of Arab Nationalism in the 1960s.


The United States' interest in the Middle East was slow to develop: the Americans still regarded the area as a primarily British and French concern. Like the Soviet Union, interest first developed in the Northern Tier, as a result of providing aid to Turkey though the European Recovery Program (Turkey fought in the Korean War which gained her admittance to NATO). American involvement in the more southern states of the Middle East rested mainly on oil, but also on worries of Soviet involvement and the spread of communism. Arab nationalism and socialism were a worrying prospect as, particularly the latter, was allied in American minds with communism. The 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine vowed to provide aid to countries of the Middle East in the same way the Truman Doctrine applied in Europe in an attempt to prevent the spread of this ideology. This drew the US into local arguments.

Superpower involvement in the Middle East

The 1967 Six Day/June War drew both superpowers further into the region. The infamous telegram sent by the Soviets to Egypt saying that Israeli troops were massing on the Syrian border heightened tensions and effectively caused the war as Nasser ordered the UNEF troops to leave Sinai, therefore having to advance towards Israel. This telegram, when proved false, damaged Soviet prestige in the area, as it identified them firmly with the Arab camp. The US then became much more involved with Israel as she appeared more useful now as a tool to prevent the Soviets from advancing. The closer involvement of the superpowers placed them in dangerous situations, and so it was agreed to 'restrain' the conflict as much as possible. The UN was brought in, but the two attempts at peace between Soviet backed Arab countries and US backed Israel - the Jarring Mission (1967-8) and the Rogers Plan (1969) - both failed.

The superpowers did however remain involved. Throughout the 1969 War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel, the USSR consistently supplied Egypt with military aid. This was a catalyst for a change in superpower relations in the region: instead of restraining the conflict, the allies drew in closer. The USSR made pacts with Syria and Iraq that legitimised the flow of weapons and aid, and in response the United States supported Israel.

Things came to a head during the Yom Kippur War of 1973: UN resolution 338 had called a ceasefire, and the Egyptian 3rd Army was in a distinctly vulnerable position to Israel. To prevent the untimely death of Egypt's army, the Soviets threatened to send their own troops to fight. The United States knew this was a tactic to make them restrain Israel, who had already broken the ceasefire once, and so went on to Red (Nuclear) Alert. Eventually both sides backed down from brinkmanship. The shock of this situation, plus the Arab use of the 'oil weapon' - the oil price hike that followed the war - brought the superpowers to work for peace in the region. The US particularly worked hard, eventually helping to secure peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979. The improvement of relations between Israel and her neighbours meant that the Cold War became less important in the Middle East, although US involvement in Arab-Israeli relations continued.