The Shevardnadze Shuttle: Moscow's New Role in the Middle East

By Halliday, Fred | The Nation, March 20, 1989 | Go to article overview

The Shevardnadze Shuttle: Moscow's New Role in the Middle East


Halliday, Fred, The Nation


The recent visit to five Middle Eastern capitals by Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is the most important Soviet diplomatic mission to the region since Nikita Khrushchev flew in to consolidate friendship with Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1964. Shevardnadze has established the Soviet Union as an indispensable broker in the main regional disputes -the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iran-Iraq war-and has increased pressure on the Bush Administration to produce a coherent new U.S. policy.

Soviet policy in the Middle East has been gathering momentum for some months. The new Soviet influence there is of great importance, not only for the area itself but also for Soviet-U.S. relations and for "new thinking," the fresh approach to international relations proclaimed by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The Middle East has been a major obstacle to improved Soviet relations with the West, and much of the drive to break out of existing impasses comes from Moscow's broad strategic concern to reduce the impact of r 'egional issues on superpower relations. Hence the search for joint positions with the United States on the Iran-Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli dispute, and Gorbachev's new emphasis on the role of the United Nations in actively pursuing solutions and policing agreements.

Soviet leaders now say that force has no role to play in resolving Third World issues and that Third World states have to learn to find political solutions, both with external rivals and with internal opposition forces. The goals are to be interstate compromises on territory and armament levels and, within s"national reconciliation."

An equally important part of the new thinking is the emphasis placed by Soviet officials upon improving relations with "all countries, large and small." In practice, this means not so much getting away from the priorities of the pre-1985 period -that is, relations with the United States, China and Western Europe -as working to strengthen links with other states that had been ignored or consistently antagonized previously, above all by former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. In the Middle East this includes Egypt and Saudi Arabia and, of course, Israel. The Soviet willingness to talk with all of these countries, even where diplomatic relations do not exist, has already borne considerable fruit.

Like U.S. policy, Soviet policy toward the Middle East reflects domestic considerations. Factionalism has always been evident. With the emergence of strong and often anti-Semitic Russian nationalist currents, there is open opposition to reestablishing diplomatic relations with Israel. At the same time, both for internal reasons and in order to improve relations with Washington, Gorbachev has sought to remove the issues of Jewish opposition and emigration. He is also, as part of his anticorruption drive, particularly keen to reform the predominantly Moslem republics where "stagnation" took special and deep-rooted forms. The party shakeups in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, and in the last the dangers posed by anti-Armenian chauvinism as well, allegedly under the influence of Khomeini's Iran next door, have brought about a clash between perestroika and the Islamic republics of the Soviet Union,

In the first three years of Gorbachev's rule, foreign and defense policies were still largely exempt from public discussion and critique. But the tone of businesslike criticism that has prevailed in internal Soviet debates is now increasingly applied to relations with foreign allies, especially those of the socialist bloc. Gorbachev has attacked "sugar- coated" speeches and reports in interparty and intersocialist relations, and one of the hallmarks of 1988 was the emergence of "international glasnost"- criticism in the Soviet media of foreign policy during the "stagnation" period under Leonid Brezhnev and criticism of Third World socialist states. The Soviet press has written critically of recent events in the "socialist-oriented" state of Burma, and of the illusions of other Third World allies said to be besotted with ultraleft slogans and too prone to militaristic solutions. …

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