The Middle East
The Middle East was among the most important Third World regions for Soviet foreign policy and national security. The Soviet Union shared boundaries with Middle Eastern states Iran and Turkey, and some of those states' ethnic, religious, and language groups also were represented on the Soviet side of the border. The region's oil resources and shipping lanes were of significant interest to the Soviet Union and to the West. After World War II, the main Soviet goal in the region was to minimize the influence of the United States. Toward that end, the Soviet Union gave large-scale support to a group of radical Arab states that were united by their quest to eliminate Israel and to oust all vestiges of Western influence in the region. At various times, the strategy also included extensive economic assistance to NATO member Turkey, unsuccessful attempts at negotiation of the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s (during a period of strained relations with both countries), and, in the late 1980s, pursuit of closer relations with moderate states of the region such as Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia as well as United States ally Israel. In 1987 the Soviet Union protected Kuwaiti shipping in the Persian Gulf against Iranian attack, and it established consular relations with Israel. At the same time, the Soviet Union continued ties with radical regimes in Libya, Syria, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen).
In the last years of the Soviet Union, influence with Libya, Iraq, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Kuwait ebbed, and the Soviet Union played a peripheral role in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Despite its friendship treaty with Iraq, the Soviet Union supported the United States-led international effort to reverse Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. After the war, the Soviet Union found itself marginalized by United States dominance in the region. The Soviet Union played a minor but significant role as co-coordinator with the United States of peace talks between Israel and the Arab states that began in January 1992.
The independence of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics put a geographical barrier between Russia and the states of the Middle East. Some Russian democrats and some ultranationalists believed that the Soviet Union's involvement with Islamic states such as Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics had drained resources and harmed Russia's economic and political development and stability. This sentiment was a major factor in the original formulation of the CIS, which included only the Slavic republics in that new organization and added the Central Asian and Caucasus states only at the insistence of Kazakstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Beginning in 1993, however, Russian policy toward the Middle East and the Persian Gulf became more assertive in selected areas. In late 1992, Russia endeavored, with limited success, to prevent Iran from supporting the Islamic elements of a coalition government in Tajikistan, then under siege by antireformist Tajikistani elements. On other issues, Iran and Russia pursued similar interests in constraining anti-Russian and anti-Iranian political currents in Azerbaijan, and Iran used relations with Russia to counteract United States-led international economic and political ostracism.
A major factor in renewed Russian interest in the region was the prospect of arms sales and other trade, which were the goals of Chernomyrdin's visit to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states in November 1994. In December 1994, Russia signed a trade agreement with Egypt with the stated purpose of resuming Egypt's Soviet-era position as the most important trade partner in the Middle East. Russia moved to reestablish its earlier lucrative arms sales ties with Iran, selling that country fighter aircraft, tanks, submarines, fighter-bombers, and other arms. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria also made arms purchases in the early 1990s, as did Egypt and Syria. However, the level of Russian arms sales remained low compared with the previous decades of high Soviet visibility in the region. In 1996 Russia continued to observe international bans on arms sales to Libya and Iraq.
Ultranationalists and other deputies in the Russian parliament called for rebuilding ties with Iraq and condemned United States air strikes against that country in January and June 1993. Among Russia's overtures for better relations was an appeal in the UN Security Council for easing international economic sanctions on Iraq, but in late 1995 these efforts were set back by revelations that Iraq was seeking to develop a nuclear weapons program. The apparently poor performance of Russian equipment during the Persian Gulf War discouraged many Middle Eastern states from buying Russian arms. Another negative effect on Russia's ties with the Middle East was Russia's aggression against Chechen Muslims and its stance favoring Serbia against Muslim Bosnia.
A series of Russian contracts to build nuclear power plants and to share nuclear technology with Iran became a major international issue and a source of particular friction with the United States. The initial 1993 contract was not fulfilled; a new contract, worth a reported US$800 million, called for construction of a nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf. In September 1995, Moscow announced a further contract to build two additional, smaller reactors. Although the United States strongly protested what it viewed as potential nuclear proliferation to a terrorist state, Russia responded that international law permitted such deals and that the reactors would be under full safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Russian diplomats encouraged Arab participation in the Arab-Israeli peace talks that began in 1992, and Russians participated in talks between Israel and the PLO on the issue of PLO self-rule in Israeli-occupied territories. Among other reasons, Russia supported the peace process as a means of reducing the threat of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
Russian foreign minister Primakov launched shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East in April 1996 in an attempt to end fighting in southern Lebanon and to increase Russia's diplomatic role in the region. However, Russia's condemnation of Israeli attacks against militant Arab Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon led Israel to respond that it preferred the more evenhanded diplomatic approach of the United States. Russia subsequently was excluded from a multilateral force agreed upon by Israel, Lebanon, and Syria to monitor a United States-brokered cease-fire in Lebanon.