In the past two years the following has happened in the Middle East: The Shah of Iran has been overthrown and replaced by an Islamic and radical left coalition that is hostile to the United States. OPEC has raised oil prices by 120 percent, and, with Iran joining the radical coalition of Libya, Iraq, and Algeria, further huge increases are coming. The explicit threat of cutoffs to nations dealing with Israel has become more ominous and has resulted in appeasement of the PLO terrorists by many US allies in Europe and Japan.
The neutralist government in Afghanistan was overthrown in a communist coup in April, 1978. The first communist leader was in turn killed by a communist successor, who was then deposed and executed in the Soviet invasion of December, 1979. Meanwhile there were several assassinations of North Yemen leaders by agents from communist South Yemen followed by an attempted military invasion. And the US Embassy in Iran was captured by what seems to be a group of Marxist guerrillas.
What does it all mean and what should be done? Some will see these and other events as the result of brilliant Soviet covert action which has been planned to the last bullet. Others will view each of these events as unique episodes deriving entirely from social forces within each country.
A more plausible explanation combines these two viewpoints.
There are indeed social, national, ethnic, and religious tensions deriving from the unique history of each country. Yet it is also true that radical revolutionary forces which include the Palestinian terrorists, Libya, Syria, Algeria, communist parties, and Soviet covert agents are working together to exploit any and all opportunities to destabilize pro- Western governments. This means that as the Iranian revolution against the Shah built momentum month by month in 1978 it received more and more help from the PLO and, starting in the fall, from Moscow through the communist unions in the oil fields, selective sabotage and terrorism, clandestine radio broadcasts, and the willingness to work entirely under the banner of Khomeini.
This is political warfare, and Moscow has told the democracies again and again in blunt language that detente in the military sphere will be accompanied by "increased struggle for the destruction of Western imperialism" through ideological and political action.
It has been a consistent objective of Soviet policy to use all means short of war to weaken the influence of the West in that region. The process has involved the classic scenario of covert action -- deception, surprise, destabilization of existing governments and, more recently in Afghanistan and South Yemen, the replacement of even pro-Soviet or neutralist regimes by openly communist ones.
Probably the next targets will be the oil- rich states of the Arabian peninsula. "Radical Islam" provides the ideal banner to use in working for the overthrow of the royal pro- Western families in devoutly Islamic societies.
This invisible warfare must be fought with great skill at several levels of action. It demands that the West compete ideologically with the radical and communist mythology that has become the fashion in the third world. It requires cooperation among the democracies to neutralize the cooperating terrorist networks that exist in Spain, Italy, and Turkey as well as the Middle East. This mutual help should include the moderate Arabian oil states.
There is a case for greater political initiative to help moderate groups within threatened countries and to keep radical elements off balance. This in turn requires a much greater degree of political realism and knowledge about these countries and their history than the US seems to be making use of at present. All of this calls for better political intelligence, something Zbigniew Brzezinski claims to have been seeking since 1977.
As long as the hostages in Tehran are alive and free from torture the US should refrain from using force directly. If force is used, it should be aimed at doing the maximum damage to the modern infrastructure of the economy such as telecommunications, power stations, bridges, dams, and the like while minimizing the loss of human life. There is no quarrel with the people of Iran. They, too , are prisoners of radical minorities which are polarizing Iran as part of the march to totalitarianism.
The President should move to wage intensive economic war against Iran in such a way that it harms the luxury and convenience aspects of the recently built modern economy while avoiding major life-threatening hardships for the people. This can be done with a bit of forethought.Examples might include a selective air and naval blockade which lets oil out and some food in, a call to the international communications and civil aviation organizations for a suspension of all services to and from Iran, along with sanctions voted by the United Nations and the suspension of Iran from all international organizations. America's allies should join either publicly or privately in halting all transactions with Iran except for those required for strictly humanitarian reasons.
If it proves impossible to obtain this cooperation, the US should use its naval power and covert resources to accomplish this. Actions of this kind should be taken as soon as possible with the announced political intention of punishing and isolating the government of Iran without causing severe injury to its people. Such a strategy applies US power in a politically sensible way, as required by the larger challenge the US faces.