The superpowers and the Gulf war

The recent escalation in the Iran-Iraq war has demonstrated how this conflict has the potential to harm Western interests, because continued attacks on oil tankers could dramatically reduce the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West. Iraq's beleaguered state has also caused concern that should Iran defeat Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini might decide to spread Islamic revolution to the oil-rich but militarily weak Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is the weakening or overthrow of these pro-Western governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, by Iranian forces and what this might mean for the long-term supply of oil to the West and Japan that have led many in the West to fear an Iranian victory in this war. But what about the Soviet Union? How has the recent escalation of the war affected its interests?

In its public statements, Moscow has proclaimed its neutrality in the war and called upon both sides to resolve their differences peacefully so as to deny the United States an opportunity to intervene militarily in this region. Recently, the Soviets have become fairly extremist on this point. They cite Western statistics which show that the US imports only 3 percent of its oil needs from the Gulf and conclude from this that the US is not really worried about its oil supplies, as Washington says. Instead, Moscow portrays the US as wanting to intervene in the Gulf to control the oil-producing regions and to ensure good behavior on the part of Western Europe and Japan through the ability to cut off their oil! To avoid this, the Soviets say it is more urgent than ever for Iran and Iraq to end their conflict.

In the realm of actions, the USSR has not been neutral. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the Soviets tilted toward Iran, although they did send weapons to Iraq via third parties. Later, however, when the Iranians moved into Iraqi territory, Tehran crushed the Tudeh (the pro-Soviet Iranian Communist Party), and the Ayatollah remained hostile toward the USSR despite Moscow's friendly overtures. The Soviets then tilted toward Iraq. The USSR has recently sent sophisticated weapons directly to Iraq in an effort to prop up Saddam Hussein.

Privately, Soviet experts admit that, like the Americans, they stand to lose much if Iran wins this war. While they did not approve of Iraq's move into Iran, Moscow and Baghdad have been friends since the late 1950s. In 1972, they signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. If Iran defeats Iraq or manages to replace Saddam Hussein with a pro-Iranian government, the Soviets will lose an important ally. If Iran then turns against tiny, oil-rich Kuwait, which has had good relations with the USSR as well as the West, Moscow will also lose a friend. In fact, wherever Iranian influence spreads, it will mean the loss of an ally or potential ally to Moscow, since Tehran has become increasingly anti-Soviet.

As far as the Gulf war is concerned, then, both America and Russia have similar goals: Both want to prevent Iran from winning. Why, then, have the Soviets so vociferously denounced US efforts to support militarily the Arab states of the Gulf? For the same reason that the US is suspicious of any Soviet military movements in this region: Neither superpower wishes to see Iran restrained by the other superpower gaining influence over its allies.

An Iranian victory does not seem imminent at present, as Iran has many problems and Iraq has shown great tenacity in defending itself up to now. Yet should Iraq falter, the poor state of US-USSR relations would make any unilateral effort on the part of either superpower to save Iraq and the Arab Gulf states threatening to the interests of the other. Because US and Soviet interests could be damaged by Iran, it is important for both Moscow and Washington to return to a businesslike relationship so that their responses to such a situation do not threaten each other. While Soviet and American interests oppose each other over many issues and in many parts of the world, this should not prevent the nations from working together when their interests are similar.

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