Russia in the Middle East

on the World Today

NO AREA of the world today is the theater of more intense Russian propaganda and diplomatic effort than the Middle East. There has been a steady growth in recent years in the importance and size of the Middle East research centers in Moscow and Leningrad, and in Tashkent, the capital of Russian Central Asia. A mounting number of Soviet articles and books are being written about Turkey, Iran, and the Arab countries. New courses in Middle Eastern languages and history have been started at the University of Moscow. More contacts with Middle Eastern intellectuals are being sought by Soviet scholars, who have been sending their publications to selected teachers, writers, and students in Teheran, Cairo, and other Middle Eastern cities.

All of this is part of a growing interest in an area which is vital to Russia because it lies adjacent to the “soft underbelly” of the Soviet Union. The catalyst that has excited it is, in part, the Baghdad Pact linking together Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Britain. Though it is still a disjointed and toothless creature, this pact presents Soviet Russia with a potential threat, comparable to that which a Communist-sponsored bloc in the Caribbean or Central America would pose for us.

Just how sensitive Moscow is to events in the Middle East has notably been demonstrated in the case of Iran, which shares a frontier with Russia almost as long as that between Mexico and the United States. Ever since Russia extended its power into the Caucasus and Turkestan in the second half of the last century, it has considered northern Iran a Russian sphere of influence and has taken repeated steps to give itself a privileged diplomatic position there. This privileged position was formally recognized in 1921 and again in 1927 in two treaties signed between the new Bolshevik regime and Iran which constitute a kind of Russian Monroe Doctrine. They grant Russian troops the right to enter if there is any danger of an attack on the Soviet Union from that quarter.

When Teheran announced last October 11 that Iran was joining the Baghdad Pact, the Kremlin’s reaction was quick and sharp. In the short space of two months Moscow sent two notes to Premier Hussein Ala, asserting that Iran’s adherence to the pact was an act hostile to the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin keeps the pot boiling

Combined with diplomatic pressure there has been a Communist-sponsored campaign of street demonstrations and riots aimed at blocking the ratification of the Baghdad Pact by the parliaments of Middle Eastern countries. The most successful of these were the recent bloody riots in Jordan, which resulted in the overthrow of the government that was considering Jordan’s entry into the pact. These received considerable publicity in the Western press, but what happened at about the same time in Iran was no less significant.

When the Baghdad Pact came up for ratification before the Iranian Majlis last November, the Communist Tudeh Party made plans to stage massive demonstrations in Teheran and other cities throughout the country. But shortly before they were to take place, Dr. Morteza Yazdi, a member of the Tudeh Party’s Politburo and the leading Communist in Iran, surrendered to the police. His subsequent revelations led to the arrest of more than one hundred Communists and to the total disorganization of the planned upheavals.

Since then several other prominent Iranian Communists have surrendered and recanted, and Dr. Yazdi has even gone as far as to make a recorded broadcast over Radio Teheran which revealed all the plans drawn up by the Communists for taking over Iran. This has dealt the Iranian Communist Party another heavy blow, for Yazdi is one of the most important Communist defectors since Stalin’s death.

While Moscow has thus suffered a setback in Iran, it has fully made up for it with successes elsewhere. Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are ruled by governments that are now pledged to a determined anti-Baghdad Pact position, and there is considerable popular feeling against it in Iraq. Turkey is in the grip of a grave inflation and economic crisis, which Russian propaganda is trying to make out as due to the heavy arms burden imposed on the country by its subservience to American “warmongers.”Moscow is also hoping to profit from the confused political situation which has arisen in Ankara, thanks to the creation last December of a new “ Freedom Party,”which is now challenging the omnipotence of the ruling Democratic Party.

Farther east, Moscow is playing the rewarding game of stirring up Afghanistan against pro-Western Pakistan by supporting Kabul’s demands for the creation of a frontier Pushtoonistan state, which would emasculate Pakistan were it ever to be set up. She has also been harassing Pakistan on her other flank by egging on India over the thorny question of Kashmir.

Asiatic propaganda center

The Middle East is of prime importance to the Soviet Union for more than simple reasons of defense. This strategic region now offers it the most promising opportunity for profitable troublemaking on the globe. Upward of 60 per cent of the world’s known petroleum resources lie beneath the burning sands of the countries near the Persian Gulf. The free world has been growing more and more dependent on the output of these fields, and today Western Europe gets more than 90 per cent of its oil from them.

If Russia could ever deprive the West of the possibility of peacefully exploiting these fields, it would be a crippling blow. To take advantage of this situation, Moscow has now launched a propaganda campaign of formidable proportions.

The central headquarters for this campaign is Tashkent, a city of half a million people, the capital of Russian Central Asia and the chief city of the autonomous Soviet republic of Uzbek. It boasts an ultramodern radio station, whose powerful beams cover the entire Orient, and which is second only to Moscow in the number of its foreign programs.

Every day Radio Tashkent broadcasts in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Pashto (the language of Afghanistan), Urdu (the national tongue of Pakistan), and in other languages, like Kurdish and Armenian, which are spoken in the Middle East and Central Asia. The programs are prepared by a large staff of renegade Persians, Arabs, Turks, and others, most of whom are members of Communist movements in exile. They are backed up by research groups that methodically study the reception and influence of Soviet broadcasts throughout the Middle East and Asia.

There are also radio stations in Baku, the oil port on the Caspian, and Erevan, the capital of Armenia, and in other cities of southern Russia which broadcast to the Middle East, but Tashkent is far and away the most important.

All of these broadcasts stress two main points: the industrial and military might of Russia, and the advantages to be derived from friendship with the Soviet Union.

Soviet show place

Because Soviet Central Asia is mostly populated by peoples who ethnically are of Turkish and Iranian stock, who are Moslems by religion, and who have been subject to the influence of Iranian culture, every effort has been made to exhibit this region, and especially its capital, Tashkent, as Russia’s show place for the neighboring countries of the Middle East and Asia. Delegations of Afghan agricultural experts, Indian textile manufacturers, Egyptian doctors, or Syrian professors are constantly being invited to Tashkent to admire Soviet achievements in the fields of education, public health, and heavy industry.

Usually they are flown in from Moscow and met at the Tashkent airport by Intourist guides who take great pains to impress upon them the fact that the Uzbeks and other nationalities of Soviet Central Asia enjoy full cultural autonomy.

They see Uzbeks in the streets and in the bazaars in native costumes; they talk to Uzbeks who enjoy positions of authority in the local government ; they are shown books and newspapers written in the local languages (though in the Cyrillic script); they visit schools, where the native language is used for instruction, and they are taken to mosques, where Moslem services are still held.

For those who are not overcurious this cultural camouflage can be singularly convincing and hides the fact that in reality conditions of life have changed little in Central Asia since the Russian Revolution. For any visitor who leaves the broad, Sovietbuilt avenues, with their modern buildings, immediately stumbles on narrow dust-filled back streets overrun by barefooted children, where people still wear rough, homemade clothes and live in mud huts, as they have for centuries.

In order to divert attention from these vestiges of the past which the Bolshevik revolution is supposed to have abolished, the Intourist guides have a trump card — the achievements of heavy industry and modern medicine in the area. Visiting delegations from the Middle East are proudly shown the tractor and tank factories, the hydroelectric plants, the modern hospitals, and the model schools that have been built in Tashkent.

The fact that most of the products of these heavy-industry factories go to Moscow and European Russia is played down, and any question that the visitors may raise about the poverty of the local inhabitants in the back streets or in the plains is answered with the explanation that sacrifices in living standards are necessary in order to give Russia the sinews of industrial greatness. The present must give way to the future.

Wooing the Moslems

Particular stress is laid on impressing visiting Moslems from the Middle East. Selected pilgrims from Russian Turkestan now are allowed to make the annual hadj to Mecca in an effort to prove that freedom of religion exists in the Soviet Union. The few mosques that have remained open in Tashkent, Samarkand, and other places in Central Asia are sure to be on the visitors’ itinerary, and a visit to the aged Grand Mufti (or chief of the Soviet Moslems) in Tashkent is a tourist must.

The fact that most other mosques have been closed is not mentioned by the guides. Nor do they dwell on the fact that most of the Moslem religious schools have been abolished, that the training of new priests is restricted, that the religion of Islam is now being taught less and less, and that the printing or importation of Korans is forbidden. But usually these are embarrassing questions which the visiting delegations never raise.

The effect of these propaganda tours should not be underestimated. Tashkent is not a show place for Westerners, who are not particularly welcome there; but for visiting Orientals it offers a plausible model for the solution of their own difficulties. “Cultural autonomy” (the preservation, that is, of indigenous cultures and religions) together with heavy industry and the benefits of modern science and technique — these are the things that the Orientals want, and they are what Russia shows them.

Just how effective this propaganda has been may be judged by some of Russia’s recent achievements. Afghanistan has now fallen so heavily under Russia’s technical influence that the country is overrun by Soviet technicians, and an agreement for the mutual free transit of goods through both countries was signed last fall.

The Soviet Union has also finally succeeded in securing a diplomatic foothold on the vital Arabian peninsula. There has been serious talk of an exchange of diplomatic relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries in the world which have steadily refused to have any diplomatic dealings with Moscow. Last October 31 the Soviet Union and Yemen signed a treaty of friendship in the Soviet Embassy in Cairo, and shortly thereafter the minister of Yemen to Egypt announced that his country would welcome an offer of Soviet arms.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

The gravest challenge to the West, however, comes from Moscow’s new policy of exploiting the Arab-Israeli conflict for Soviet advantage. This conflict is, indeed, a godsend for the Kremlin, for it permits Moscow to play off one side against the other, while maintaining an air of impartial detachment. It has managed to maneuver the West into such a position that it can denounce Western intervention as imperialistic, while at the same time using its pawn, Czechoslovakia, to slip arms to both Arabs and Israelis.

Russian policy is clearly calculated to sow the seeds of dissension in this explosive area and, if possible, to lead to a renewal of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Such a war would create social upheaval throughout the Middle East.

Soviet policy puts the West in an exceedingly ticklish position. If Britain and the United States now seek to decrease the prevailing tension between Israel and the Arab states by imposing an arms embargo on them, Russia and her satellites can offer their aid to the Arabs to protect them against “Israeli imperialism.”If, on the other hand, Britain and the United States offer arms to the Arabs in response to their requests, they can be branded by Moscow as warmongers seeking to foment strife in order to tighten their grip on the oilrich Middle East.

To get off the horns of this dilemma will not be easy. But it is already evident that Washington and London will have to do some serious thinking about the merits of the Baghdad Pact.

That pact was to have provided a measure of stability to the Middle East; in fact, it has done just the reverse. Soviet opposition to the pact could not alone have raised such a storm of protest among the Arabs if it had proved popular among the masses. Instead, it was suspected from the first of being a Machiavellian Western move aimed at diverting Arab attention away from Palestine. Here too it has clearly failed, for the pact has been used by at least one Arab country to obtain arms for eventual use against the Israelis.

The serious economic crisis in Turkey, the inherent military and social weaknesses of Iran, and the virulent discontent of the Arab masses all combine to make the pact more of a liability to the West than an asset. It is only to be hoped that the Western powers do not let the military thinking which engendered the pact go on dominating their conception of policy in the Middle East in the crucial months ahead. For the situation there confronts the West with a challenge that will have to be met with imagination, boldness, and statesmanship of a high order.

Above all, in this election year it is imperative that Washington and London agree on a joint policy that is clear-cut and determined, and designed to serve the long-term interests of the West rather than — as so often in the past — the immediate purposes of domestic politics.