Moscow Stalks the Persian Gulf

Report Middle East

Moscow Stalks the Persian Gulf

February 27, 1984 24 min read Download Report
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

(Archived document, may contain errors)

333 February 27, 1984 MOSCOW STALKS THE PERSIAN GULF INTRODUCTION The recent upsurge in fighting in the Iran-Iraq war and Iran's threat to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz have focused attention on the Persian Gulf, an epicenter of world politics.

Because it is the world's largest known storehouse of low-cost energy supplies, the Gulf region has acquired imme nse strategic value as one of the determining fulcrums of the global balance of power. The Gulf region's geopolitical importance, the kaleido scopic nature of politics among Gulf states and the presence of volatile social and political forces within them, and the length ening shadow 0.f Soviet military power insure that the Gulf will remain a potentially explosive source of superpower tensions for years.

After centuries of southward expansion, Moscow is closer than ever to securing a land bridge to a warm water port advent of Soviet nuclear parity, the growth of Soviet power pro jection forces, the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have altered fundamentally the strategic balance of the Gulf region. The fall of the Shah removed the American shield from Iran, sounded the death knell for the anti-Soviet CENTO alliance,l and plunged Iran into chronic turmoil. This has afforded the Soviets increased opportunities to meddle in Iranian affairs and in the internal affairs of neighboring st a tes threat ened by the spillover of the Iranian revolution. The invasion of Afghanistan brought Soviet forces 400 miles closer to the Gulf The The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) was a defense alliance between Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Great Britain . Originally named the Baghdad Pact, the name was changed when the Iraqi revolution led Iraq to withdraw in 19

59. The United States held observer status in the alliance but was not a party to the treaty. 2 lengthened the Soviet-Iranian border by 400 miles , and gave Moscow well-positioned military and subversive bases that could be used to intimidate undermine, or dismember Iran and Pakistan.

In the near future, Iran is likely to be MOSCOW,~S prime tar get because of its. proximity, relative diplomatic iso lation, and internal instability. The Soviet Union twice has attempted to swallow Iranian provinces-Gilan province in 1920 and Azerbaijan Kurdistan in 1945-19

46. Although it was forced to disgorge these occupied Iranian territories on both occasions, the story could be different today, given .the marked pro-Soviet tilt in the gl.obal balance of power..

Moscow's ultimate target is Saudi Arabia. By gaining control of the kingdom's massive oil reserves, the Soviets could undermine the economic vitality of t he West, split the Western alliance and reforge the weakening energy links that help bind Eastern European satellites to the Kremlin A pro-Soviet Saudi Arabia would be a grievous blow to Western Europe and Japan, which are dependent on Saudi oil, and to t he smaller Gulf states that have looked to the Saudis for leadership in recent years.

The Soviet Union has encircled the Gulf with military bases in Afghanistan, Syria, South Yemen, and Ethiopia. A direct Soviet military thrust is unlikely, however, as lon g as regional trends continue to favor the Soviets and the American commitment to use force in defense of friendly Gulf states remains credible.

Moscow is more likely to mount indirect threats to the Gulf in the form of opportunistic manipulation of ethnic separatist groups, local revolutionaries and domestic political instability.

In trying to deter the Soviet military threat to the Gulf, Wash ington should remain ready to defend its friends in the Gulf while taking care to avoid exacerbating the domesti c problems of fragile Gulf polities safeguard the continued flow of Gulf oil against the interference of Iran as well as the Soviet Union Washington also must stand ready to SOVIET GOALS IN THE GULF Russia'was deterinined to push its frontiers southward f o r geopolitical reasons centuries before the Bolshevik revolution or the discovery of oil in the Gulf. In 1920, three years after seizing power, the Bolsheviks organized a I'Congress of the Peoples of the East" in Baku in a vain attempt to incite the Mosle m world to launch a holy war against European colonial empires. The fol lowing year, however, weakened by civil war, Moscow signed a series of If friendship treaties" with Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, which ushered in a "period of armed truce" along its s outhern borders George Lenczowski, Soviet Advances in the Middle East (Washington, D.C American Enterprise Institute, 1972 p. 25 3 Then, in 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov signed .a secret protocol to the Hitler-Stalin pact that pledged !'The . area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is the center of aspirations of the Soviet Union II 3 Emboldened by its military strength after World War 11 Moscow prepared to carve up its southern neighbors. It demanded territor ial concessions and control of the Bosphorus from Turkey and refused to withdraw from northern Iran, which it had occupied in 19

41. Turkey and Iran rebuffed Soviet coercive diplomacy with the support of the United States and became key allies in the Ameri can effort to contain Soviet expansion. Having failed to subjugate the Northern Tier countries through intimidation, Moscow sought to lure them away from a strategic embrace with the West by implementing a good neighbor policy aimed at allaying their fear s about Soviet imperiali~m The Soviets pursued a dual policy of cultivating good rela tions on the state-to-state level with its southern neighbors while local comunist parties and other revolutionary groups. Economic development assistance was ex t ended to buy good wall and provide cover for subversion tary assistance program gave the Soviets entrCe into the armed forces of recipient states, an excellent position for recruiting potential coup leaders. Clandestine pro-Soviet elements in the armed fo r ces staged an abortive coup in Sudan (1971), were purged from the armed forces of Iran (1977), Somalia (1978), and Iraq 1978), and staged successful coups in Afghanistan (1978) and South Yemen (1978).5 The extensive Soviet mili In addition to strengthenin g its own influence in the Gulf region, Moscow has worked to erode U.S. influence there It has sought to prevent local states from cooperating with Washington pushed for the dissolution of existing .alliances and agreements with the U.S., and tried to prev ent new ones.

SOVIET UNION AND PERSIAN GULF OIL The Soviet Union's long-term goals almost surely include control of the natural resources as well as the foreign policies of Gulf states the world's proven oil reserves, or about two-thirds of the non The Gulf region cont a ins roughly 55 percent of Raymond Sontag and James Beddie, Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941 from the Archives of the German Foreign Office (Washington, D.C ment of State, 1948 p. 259 For an analysis of Soviet policy toward the Northern Tier, see James Phil lips A Mounting Soviet Threat to the Northern Tier," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 271, July 1, 1983.

See David Lynn Price MOSCOW and the Persian Gulf," Problems of Communism March-April 1979 Documents Depart4 communist world's oil supplies. Althoug h Gulf oil production has fallen in recent years due to the world oil glut and the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf remains the center of gravity of the world oil trade. While the United States has reduced significantly its dependence on Persian Gulf oil, its close allies in Europe and Japan remain vulnerable to disruptions in their supply line to the Gulf.

The establishment of Soviet hegemony over the Gulf could spell the end of the Western Alliance. Once astride the Gulf the Soviet Union would be in a pos ition to "Finlandize" Western Europe and Japan through economic blackmail. By becoming the arbiter of Gulf oil flows the Soviet Union not only would gain influence over non-communist oil importers but would bolster its influence over its oil-thirsty satel l ites in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin has been unable to satisfy fully the oil import demands of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria over the last decade because the growth of Soviet oil production has failed to keep pace with either the growth of Soviet-bloc oil demand or the need to finance'food and technology imports with foreign currency earned by selling oil to the West. If the East ern Europeans are squeezed out of the world oil market, their economies will be hamstrung to the p o int where there might be an anti-Soviet political spillover. The Soviet Union probably will be forced to incur rising political, military, and economic costs to retain its East European satellites unless it can obtain ade quate oil imports for them. And t he Soviet Union itself may look to the Persian Gulf to fulfill its oil requirements as its own oil production reaches a plateau and declines in the late 1980s.

MOSCOW I S INDIRECT STRATEGY Moscow so far has pursued an indirect strategy in the Gulf to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States It has secured strongholds around the Gulf's rim in Afghanistan, Syria South Yemen, and Ethiopia and retains residual influence in Iraq.

Explains .a leading expert on Soviet foreign policy: Moscow seeks to Il subvert the center by radicalizing the periphery.It6 East German and Cuban advisors safeguard the ardently pro-Soviet regime in South Yemen while the Yemenis support rebellions in neighboring Oman'and North Yemen--back doors to Saudi Arabia. The communist Defense Minister of Afghanistan has indicated that the Afghan army would play a "significant role" in the future "like that played by the Cuban and Vietnamese armies.ll7 A direct Soviet military thrust into the Gulf region cannot be ruled out and is proba bly more likely than a similar thrust Alvin Rubinstein The Evolution of Soviet Strategy in the Middle East,"

Orbis, Summer 1980 p. 330 FBIS, Daily Report, South Asia, January 28, 1982, p. C1 5 into Western Europe. Such an operation, however, would be ex tremely risky because it could trigger a superpower confrontation.

Moscow probably can afford to be patient, for trends in the Gulf appear to be running its way. The Iranian revolution has opened up new possibilities for Soviet probing, Saddam Husseinls Ira qi regime is tottering, and the traditional societies on the Arab side of the Gulf are beset by the destabilization born of too rapid modernization. After demonstrating its ruthlessness in Afghanistan, Moscow does not actually have to use its military pow e r in the Gulf to extract political benefits. The Soviet mili tary machine casts a large political-psychological shadow that must be offset by countervailing Western power THE SOVIET THREAT TO .IRAN The opportunities for Soviet gains are highest and the ri s ks lowest in Iran. As such, it probably will be the foremost target of Soviet meddling in the near future. The Iranian revolution has detached Iran from the U.S. security umbrella, weakened its military strength, unleashed political turbulence, and left t he country internationally isolated would inevitably lead the other Gulf states to reach an accom modation with the Kremlin Soviet subjugation of Iran Moscow~s interest in fomenting a pro-Soviet revolution in.

Iran is longstanding. Communist ties to Irania n leftists predate the Bolshevik revolution. A Soviet writer speculated in 1938 that a revolution in Persia m.ight become Itthe key to revolution in the whole east.Il8 Iran's Caspian Sea, coast and set up a Soviet Republic under Kuchek Khan. Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1921 only after Moscow .had extracted a one-sided "Treaty of Friendship.Il Article VI of the treaty gave the Soviets the right to intervene if Iran were occu pied by a third party or if Iranian territory were used as a base for IIanti-So v iet aggression A subsequent exchange of letters specified that Article VI referred only to anti-Bolshevik Russian forces, but the Soviets have constantly tried to widen the inter pretation of the treaty to give themselves a pretext for interven tion and t o restrict the military activities of foreign powers in Iran.g Although Iran has announced repeatedly the abrogation of the treaty, Moscow ominously insists that it remains in force In 1920, the Red Army invaded Gilan province on In spite of a wary, correc t relationship with the Shah, the Soviet Union welcomed the Iranian revolution because of its anti American nature. Iranian opposition to Soviet imperialism, how ever, became a source of tension in Soviet-Iranian re.lations A. Yodfat and B. Abir, In the Di rection of the Persian Gulf: The Soviet Union the Persian Gulf (London Frank Cass, 1977 p. 29.

Alvin Rubinstein, Soviet Policy Toward Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan (New York: Praeger, 1982 p. 61. 6 Ayatollah Khomeini's government condemned the Soviet invasi on of Afghanistan and shut down a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union when the Soviets refused to meet Iranian demands to raise the below market price they were paying for the gas criticized the Iranian government for llartificiallyl' restricting tra d e between the two countries but avaided criticizing Khomeini personally. The Soviets have staged troop maneuvers along the Iranian border on several occasions and maintain strong garrisons along the Afghan-Iranian border to deter Iranian Ilinterferencell i n Afghanistan's "internal affairs II In early 1982, Iran shot down a Soviet helicopter that had pursued Afghan freedom fighters across the border into Iran.lo M0sco.w Another source of tension in Soviet-Iranian relations is the ideological clash between K h omeini's militant Islamic fundamental ism and Soviet communism. Because the Soviet empire contains 40 to 45 million Moslems, Soviet leaders cannot ignore the possibility that this fast growing segment of the population will be caught up in the Islamic res u rgence. Iran's Shia Moslem ideology, how ever, is unlikely to appeal to the predominantly Sunni Moslems in Soviet Central Asia.ll Even if the Iranian revolution should inspire Moslem restiveness in Central Asia, the massive Soviet police apparatus probabl y would have little trouble in isolating and crushing an Islamic rebellion.

De'spite frequent downturns in Soviet-Iranian relations, Mos cow continues to pose as the 'lprotectorll of the Iranian revolution It works to deepen Iran's radicalization, intensif y its alienation from the West, and fan the flames of Iran's anti-Americanism It equates anti-Soviet criticism by Iranians with opposition to the Iranian revolution. By infiltrating the Soviet-controlled Tudeh Party into positions of power in Iran it atte mpted to gain influ ence over the direction of the revolution and leverage in the suc cession struggle that inevitably will follow Khomeini's death.

Soviet policy was complicated by the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 19

80. Moscow at first tried to i ngratiate itself with Iran whi.le trying to retain its influence with Iraq. It warned Iran of Iraq's impending attack, provided the Iranians with satellite intelligence,12 and channeled Soviet arms to Iran through Libya, Syria, and North Korea. Soviet-Ira nian relations soured, however, when Iran turned back Iraq's army and crossed lo l1 Wall Street Journal, July 19, 1982, p. 19.

The Uzbeks and Turkmens who inhabit the Soviet republics northeast of Iran have a long tradition of hostility toward Iranian who straddle Iran's northwest border with the Soviet Union, share the Iranians' Shia beliefs but are repelled by Tehran's treatment of the Azerbaijani minority within its borders groups are likely to be inspired by the economic costs of an Iranian-type Islami c revolution l2 Newsweek, August 9, 1982 The Azerbaijanis None of the Soviet Moslem 7 into Iraq in mid-19

82. Moscow did not welcome the prospect of an Iranian victory over Iraq because a revolutionary Islamic Iraqi government would be beholden to Tehran, not Moscow. Moreover, an Iranian triumph would w.eaken Soviet leverage in Iran and strengthen American le verage in Arab Gulf states confronted with an ascendant 1ran.13 Moscow criticized Iran's first offensive into Iraq's terri tory in July 1982 and later resumed shipping arms to the Iraqis.

The Iranians were alarmed when Vladimir Kuzichkin, a senior KGB oper ative in Tehran who defected to the British government, dis closed Soviet infiltration of ethnic groups along the border and the identities of KGB agents and undercover Tudeh Party members who had penetrated various organs of the Iranian g~verlllnent This prompted the Iranian government to purge the army, Revolu tionary Guard, police, and bureaucracy. Tehran arrested the Tudeh leadership in February 1983, banned the Tudeh Party in May and expelled eighteen Soviet diplomats.

Since then, Moscow has pursued a damage limitation strategy. At the same time, it has rebuilt its intelligence network in Iran by infiltrating KGB agents across the border from Soviet Azerbai jan.15 Soviet commentators have become much more critical of the Khomeini regime.16 Literary Ga z ette, for example, complained in June 1983 that the Iranian revolution has been transformed into Islamic despotism I1 An outright Soviet invasion of Iran cannot be ruled out, but it is unlikely as long as the military deadlock in Afghanistan persists, the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force becomes an increasingly credible deterrent, and Iranians remain unified and willing to sacrifice large numbers of lives to retain their independence.

Revolutionary Guards, worn down by more than three years of war with Iraq, co uld not hope to repel the advance could mobilize 24 divisions along the Soviet-Iranian border18 with more n article in the influential Soviet journal If the Soviet Union should invade, the Iranian army and The Soviet Army l3 The'Iran-Iraq war also threate n s important American interests in the Gulf area and thereby could advance Soviet interests to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipping if Iraq attacks Iran's oil facilities. Although Iran does not have the military capability to keep the Strait closed, given the presence of Western naval forces in the area, Iran could force up the insurance costs of oil shipping in the Gulf, thereby precipitating a mini-oil crisis.

Foreign.Report, October 28, 1982, p. 3; Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1983 Tehran has threatened l4 l5 Time May 16, 1983, p. 27 l6 Muriel Atkin MOSCOW'S Disenchantment with Iran Survey, Autumn/Winter 19

83. D. 257 l7 l8 Soviit-World Outlook, July 15, 1983, p. 7 New York Times, December 20, 1982, p. A-11. 8 than 200,000 men, 4,500 tanks, an d 940 aircraft.lg Moscow could insert two of its seven airborne divisions into Iran in a matter of hours. Despite Iran's rugged terrain and limited road network the invader's progress would undoubtedly be facilitated by the early use of paratroops, helico p ter troops, and special forces to seize strategic chokepoints and transport links. Advance columns of the Soviet army could link up with air dropped elements in Tehran week20 and in Iran's oil province of Khuzistan in the upper Gulf area in as litt l e as ten days, depending on the local opposition.21 Such a bold move would be risky, given the U.S. commitment to use force to repel a Soviet attempt to gain control of the Gulf region. In addition, once they occupied the Iranian oil fields, the Soviets w o uld be confronted with the difficult task of repairing oil production facilities and keeping them operating in the face of sabotage and aerial attack, They would be forced to occupy indefinitely a country with 35 million well-armed citi zens=-more than tw ice the population of Afghanistan-many of-whom probably would be very willing to become martyrs for the Iranian revolution.

A more attractive option for Moscow would be a limited thrust Moscow could into Iran, at the ''invitationt1 of Iranian leftists or e thnic sep aratists who would collaborate with the Soviet army establish the military infrastructure in northern Iran that would facilitate later Soviet moves to the south, Although the Tudeh Party was decapitated in the 1983 crackdown, many of its cadres p resumably escaped capture. In addition to the Tudeh, Moscow might be able to ally with some of the estimated 200,000 followers and sympathizers of various Iranian Marxist groups.22 of Iran's ethnic minority groups-the Azerbaijanis and Kurds in the Northwe s t, the Turkomans in the Northeast, or the Baluchis in the Southeast. These groups historically have resented the dom ination of the Persians and are known to be dissatisfied with their second-class status under Khomeini's harsh Islamic rule The Soviets mi g ht find other willing collaborators among some The fiercely independent Kurds, who have been fighting a bloody guerrilla war for greater autonomy since 1979, pose the greatest threat to Iranian sovereignty at this time. Iran's l9 2o 21 Shahram Chubin, Sov iet Policy Towards Iran and the Gulf, Adelphi Paper 11157, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1980, p. 3 W. Scott Thompson, "The Persian Gulf and the Correlation of Forces,"

International Security, Summer 1982, p 166 Jonathan Alford, "Soviet-American Rivalry in the Middle East Dimension," in Adeed and Karen Dawisha (eds The Soviet Union in the Middle East (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982), p. 140.

Institution Press, 1982), p 23 The Military 22 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1982 ( Stanford: Hoover 9 three to four million Kurds are part of the largest national group in the Middle East without a state of its own. Up to 15 million more Kurds inhabit a swath of territory that straddles the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Soviet Union. Recent reports indicate that Soviet aircraft have dropped supplies to dissident Kurds inside Iran.23 The Turkish-speaking Azeris, who comprise almost one-third of Iran's population, also offer Moscow fertile ground for subver sion. Ayatollah Sharia t -Madari, the leading Azeri theologian has been under house arrest since anti-Khomeini rioting rocked Azerbaijan more than four years ago. The Azerbaijan Democratic Party, a pro-Soviet communist party, has grown stronger amid the chaos of revolutionary Ira n . Radio broadcasts from Soviet Azer baijan encourage a pro-Soviet brand of nationalism in what the Soviets refer to as Ilsouthern Azerbaijan One of the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's prot6gCs, Geidar Aliyev, recently told Western visitors that it was. his I1personal1l hope that Iranian Azerbaijan.would be united with its Soviet counterpart in the future.24 The Soviets also may choose to meddle in Baluchistan where they have provided arms-to rebellious tribes in the past.

THE SOVIET UNION AND IRAQ Moscow and Baghdad have enjoyed a strategic marriage of con venience off and on since the 1958 Iraqi revolution. The 1969 rise to power of the Ba'ath (Renaissance) party tightened the Soviet-Iraqi strategic 'embrace and led to the 1972 Treaty of Friendship, whi c h loosely affiliated Iraq with the Soviet scheme of collective security. Between 1974 and 1978, Iraq became MOSCOW~S largest Third World arms customer, taking delivery of 3.6 billion of weapons.25 Soviet-Iraqi relations deteriorated after 1978 due to Iraq i displeasure over Soviet support of the April 1978 coup in Afghanistan, Soviet backing of Ethiopian at tempts to suppress the Moslem Eritrean separatists, MOSCOW'S ef- forts to ingratiate itself with Iran's revolutionary regime, and the subversive activit ies of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). In addition, the Soviets disapproved of Iraq's growing economic ties with the West, its suppression of the ICP, and its rapprochement with the moderate Arab Gulf states.

The Iran-Iraq war strained Soviet-Iraqi relati ons as it be came clear that Moscow preferred cultivating its influence with Iran to helping Iraq. But after the Iranians crossed into Iraq 23 24 25 Zalmay Khalizad Soviet Interest in Iran New York Times, May 12, 1983 p. A-23.

Shahram Chubin The Soviet Union and Iran Foreign Affairs, Spring 1983, p. 933.

Shahram Chubin, Security in the Persian Gulf London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1982 p. 78.

The Role of Outside Powers 10 in July 1982, the Sovi et Union tilted toward Iraq by resuming direct arms shipments which had been halted when hostilities began. Most recently, Iraq received Soviet SS-12 ground-to ground missiles capable of striking targets 500 miles away.26 Roughly 2,000 Soviet-bloc advisor s work in Iraq. While Baghdad has diversified its sources of military equipment and is not as dependent on Moscow today as it was ten years ago, the embattled Hussein regime will be hard pressed to beat back repeated Iranian offensives without strengthenin g its ties to the Soviets.

If Baghdad should resist sliding further into a pro-Soviet alignment, the Soviets are in a position to use the fCP as a lever to pressure the Ba'athist regime or as a power base for installing a more pro-Soviet successor regime. In November 1980 the ICP formed a national front with two Kurdish groups-the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Unified Socialist Party of Kurdistan. This front has called for the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime and greater autonomy for the Kurds-rou ghly one-third of the Iraqi population.

Although the Soviet Union has not openly supported Kurdish nationalists in Iraq since 1972, MOSCOW~S Kurdish option in Iraq as in Iran, has not been abandoned and could be revived in the future.27 The ICP gives the S oviets a direct channel into the Kurdish movement that could prove useful in setting up an inde pendent Kurdistan in the event that Iran succeeds in installing a revolutionary Islamic regime in Baghdad. As long as Saddam Hussein clings to power, however, M oscow probably will be reluc tant to antagonize its Iraqi partners, preferring instead to aid the ICP indirectly THE SOVIET THREAT TO THE ARAB OIL KINGDOMS After Britain announced in 1968 that its forces would with draw from all outposts east of Suez, Mos c ow temporarily stopped supporting subversive activities in the Gulf for fear of delaying the British withdrawal or prompting an American buildup in the area. Once the British had withdrawn in 1971, however it was back to business as usual. Moscow pursued i ts time-tested two track strategy of trying to establish good state-to-state relations while covertly forming links with revolutionary groups. The tra ditional societies of the Arab Gulf states were resistant to both approaches diplomatic relations with S oviet atheists and the closely knit tribal social structures rendered revolutionary activities diffi cult Most of the deeply religious ruling elites rejected 26 27 Washington Post, January 25, 1984.

See Aryeh Yodfat, "The Kurds December 23, 1982.

Policy P roblem for MOSCOW Soviet Analyst, 11 Kuwait was the only Arab Gulf kingdom to establish diplo matic relations with the Soviet Union, probably to against Iraqi territorial claims. .The Soviet Embassy in Kuwait quickly became Moscow~s listenin g post on the Arab side of the Gulf. Moscow persistently has courted Saudi Arabia in an effort to reestablish diplomatic links that were suspended before World War 11, but Riyadh has not yet succumbed.

The steep climb of oil prices in the mid-1970s and the subsequent influx of wealth into the Gulf states ushered in a period of rapid modernization that has been intrinsically destabi lizing. The authority and legitimacy of traditional political systems has been undermined by rapid urbanization, social change and cultural disorientation. The quantum jumps in oil income fueled an economic boom that attracted several million foreign workers, which further disoriented the indigenous populations.

This gave the USSR potential allies in fomenting revolution in the Gulf.

Because of these trends, Moscow believes that time is on its side in the Gulf would be an improvement from MOSCOW~S standpoint. It is not known to what extent the Soviets have penetrated the armed forces of the Gulf states, but it is known that they have made serious efforts. For example, Saudi officers who served with the Arab peacekeeping force in Lebanon in the mid-1970s were approached by Syrian agents of the KGB seeking to build a lfNasseristl1 faction in the Saudi army.28 Almost any change in g overnment in the Gu1.f In the event of widespread civil disorders or revolution the weak Communist parties of the Gulf states may be able to cap ture the mantle of revolutionary leadership, as the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 19

17. The tiny Communist Party of Saudi Arabia for example, already is trying to form a broad "fatherland front of Saudi dissident forces from its headquarters in South Yemen.

Kuwait and Bahrain are perhaps the Gulf states most vulnerable to subversion. More than half of Kuwait's inha bitants are non Kuwaitis, 30 to 40 percent are Shiites who are disproportionately represented in the poorer economic strata, and roughly 20 percent are Palestinians.29 is non-Arab, mainly of Iranian descent. An abortive Iranian backed coup in December 198 1 was believed to have been master minded by an Iranian revolutionary thought to have connections with the KGB.30 Though the outlawed National Liberation Front of Bahrain is reluctant to proclaim itself a communist party, it is treated as one in Soviet-spo nsored international conferences Close to 15 percent of Bahrain's population 28 29 30 Robert Moss Reaching for Oil: The Soviets' Bold Middle East Strategy,"

Saturday Review, April 12, 1980, p. 21.

James Noyes, The Clouded Lens (Second edition, Stanford: H oover Institu tion Press, 1982 p. 117 Time, October 25, 1982, p. 49 12 THE SOVIET UNION AND SOUTH YEMEN The only self-avowed Marxist state in the Arab world is South Yemen, an important Soviet strategic outpost on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula . Together with pro-Soviet Ethiopia, South Yemen dominates the mouth of the Red Sea. The South Yemenis have transformed their country into a military base, terrorist training ground, and staging area for Soviet-bloc forces. Moscow has been given a naval ba se in the Perim Islands, access to the port of Aden, and an anchorage off the island of Socotra. Soviet aerial reconnaissance planes conduct long-range surveillance missions in the Indian Ocean from bases in South Yemen.

Two Soviet MiG-25 squadrons use Yemeni airfields and Cuban, North Korean, and East German pilots operate with the Yemeni Air Force.

Approximately 5,000 Soviet-bloc advisors control the Yemeni armed forces and civil service bureaucracies. The East Germans run South Yemen's secret police, while the Cubans provide the backbone for a praetorian guard that shields the regime from its own p e ople. Under Soviet guidance, South Yemen has become an international clearinghouse for terrorism. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist Palestinian splinter group, operates terrorist training bases in which Soviet-bloc ad vis ors as well as Palestinians train a wide variety of terrorists from around the world.

South Yemen is Saudi Arabia's back door. The South Yemenis host leaders of the Communist Party of Saudi Arabia, Palestinian groups hostile to Riyadh's traditional leaders hip, and Saudi dis sidents. According to Western European intelligence sources, 70 of the 500 men who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 were trained by Cubans with Soviet supervision at a PFLP camp in South Yemen. During the uprising, the South Yem e ni army was mobilized along the Saudi border "apparently poised to intervene on the pre text of defending the Holy Places if the revolt showed signs of success. I13 1 South Yemen is also a threat to the stability of North Yemen which it has battled time a nd again over the years fears that the South Yeminis will succeed in realizing their long standing goal of unifying the two Yemens under Marxist leadership.

Such a state would have almost twice the population of Saudi Arabia and could foment instability wi thin Saudi Arabia by har nessing its more than one million Yemeni guest workers. The Saudis also fear that a united Yemen, backed by Soviet military aid, would attempt to retake territories ceded to Saudi Arabia under the resented 1934 Taif Treaty.

South Yemen also has supported actively the longstanding Dhofar rebellion against the Sultanate of Oman Saudi Arabia The rebellion 31 Robert Moss What Russia Wants," The New Republic, January 19, 1980. 13 began as a tribal uprising in 1964, but was transformed i nto a Inational 1iberationII stuggle in the late 1960s, when Marxist radicals wrested leadership away from traditional tribal leaders and named the movement the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO In 1970, the name was expanded to the Popular F r ont for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf, reflecting the es calating ambitions of the revolutionaries intent on imposing a Marxist dictatorship in other Gulf states. The rebellion was crushed by 1976 with the assistance of seconded British officer s Iranian troops, and Jordanian advisors. The remnants of the PFLO fled to South Yemen and still enjoy the Ilsupport of the Soviet people.1132 South Yemen reached a limited detente with Oman in late 1982, but the PFLO remains in cold storage and may be act i vated again in the future u:s POLICY AND SOVIET THREAT When the British withdrew from east of Suez in 1971, the United States came to depend on the two pillars of Iran and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia to guard stability in the Persian Gulf. Skyrocketi n g oil prices enabled the Shah to undertake a massive military buildup, but rapid modernization triggered economic dislocations and an Islamic backlash that led to his downfall. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave rise to the Carter Doctrine, whic h proclaimed U.S. willingness to resort to military force to protect the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) was formed to give teeth to U.S. policy. Its purpose is to deter a Soviet inter vention in the Gulf by raising the costs and risks of such a move. The RDF faces three problems: inadequate strength, mobility and access to bases in the Gulf region. The first problem is a function of the second, which is in turn complicated by the third. The Persian Gulf is 7,000 miles from the United S tates and only 1,100 miles from the Soviet border. To offset this geographical disadvantage, the Pentagon has stockpiled military supplies in the area and is working to upgrade its long-range aircraft and rapid sealift capabilities.

In strengthening the U. S. capability to defend the Persian Gulf, Washington should not undermine the political viability of 9 existing pro-Western regimes. A large American military presence could trigger xenophobic feelings and an anti-colonial hysteria in Gulf states, subject to manipulation by anti-American groups and the Soviets. The British military presence in Egypt became a rallying point for Nasserists in the 1950s, and Ayatollah Khomeini initially rose to prominence as a political leader in Iran by leading opposition to the granting of extraterritorial legal rights to U.S. servicemen in Iran in the early 1960s 32 Aryeh Yodfat MOSCOW and the Persian Gulf States," Soviet' Analyst February 9, 1983, p. 4. 14 The United States should devote the same effort to blunting pro-Sov i et coups in the Gulf that it does to preparing for direct Soviet aggression, since coups are a more likely and less risky means of expanding Soviet influence. Local governments must take the primary responsibility for guarding against a coup, but the U.S. should advise friendly governments on techniques. for reducing the success of coups.33 A fast reacting American commando force might be very useful for keeping U.S.,friends in power, but the U.S. should take a page out of the and rely on local proxies when possible. For instance, a U.S.-backed Jordanian RDF could operate in the Gulf to check a coup without any of the cum bersome political baggage that would hamper an American operation.

U.S. forces would then be free to concentrate on blunting direct Soviet threats rather than getting involved in the internal poli tics of the Gulf states.

The United States also needs to improve its intelligence gathering capabilities in the Gulf region to be able to antici pate regional developments and future Soviet moves. Washington was hampered by poor intelligence on Iran before the revolution and on Lebanon before the bombing of the marine command post.

Lack of good intelligence in a future Persian Gulf crisis could be even more costly to American interests.

Finally, the United States should stand ready to prevent the disruption of the flow of Gulf ,oil by local states as well as by the Soviet Union. Washington, together with London,'Paris and friendly Gulf states, should prepare to defend freedom of navig a tion in the Strait of Hormuz if 'Iran makes good on its recent threats to bar the passage of oil tankers.

CONCLUSION The threat posed by the Soviet Union to the Persian Gulf region is greater than ever because of its improved power projec tion capabilit ies, the erosion of Northern Tier barriers to Soviet access to the region, and MOSCOW'S many opportunities to exploit local instability. The Soviet Union has encircled the Gulf with military strongholds and is biding its time for an opening in the center. Given the prevailing trends, the Soviets have little reason to rely on brute military force to kick open Gulf doors these doors may be opened for them from the inside In defending the various houses of the Persian Gulf, the United States must not only kee p an eye on the approaches to the Gulf but also be aware of activities within Gulf states. Wash- ington should work as hard to secure the basement windows of Gulf houses against Soviet trespassing as it does to bar the front doors.

James A. Phillips Senior Policy Analyst 33 See Stephen David, "Coup and Countercoup I Washington Quarterly, Autumn 1982.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation