Isaac Deutscher 1950

Has Stalin ‘Stopped’ at the Middle East?

Source: The Reporter, 10 October 1950. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Recently Anthony Eden told the House of Commons about a curious conversation he had had with Stalin early in the last war. Stalin was telling Eden that the British were underrating Hitler’s political and military talents. Hitler’s chief mistake, Stalin said, was that he never knew where to stop. Then, as if reading Eden’s mind, Stalin added: ‘I know what you are thinking now. You think that I shall commit the same error after we have won the war. I can assure you that I shall not. I shall know where to stop.’

Does Stalin really know? And even if he does, will he be able to ‘stop’ where he himself would like to? May not forces let loose, in part at least, by himself and his policy drive him beyond a point of no return? History has seen conquerors who knew where to stop but were unable to do so; and it has seen others whom their own wisdom counselled, and circumstances permitted, to put a brake on their ambition, consolidate their limited conquests, and then rest on their laurels. Hitler did not know where to stop, but Bismarck, for instance, did. And how many of those who, like Stalin, trusted their own cleverness and self-control failed at the final test and brought about their own undoing?

It is too early – or is it perhaps too late? – for the world to share Stalin’s confidence in his own realism. But it is clear that this question – Where shall I stop? – must have been uppermost in Stalin’s mind more than once in recent years. He stopped after the blockade of Berlin. He stopped before transforming eastern Austria into a People’s Democracy. He has stopped, so far, short of armed attack on Tito.

What has been hardly noticed, or has been almost forgotten, is how many times Stalin has stopped before adventure in an area which has been considered the world’s most dangerous storm centre – the Middle East. A survey of Stalin’s own moves there will reveal quite a lot of the mechanism of his policy, of the impulses behind it, and of the obstacles now in its path.

Immediately after the war, in 1945 and 1946, Stalin seemed to be on the point of resuming a centuries-old aspiration of the Tsars and starting a struggle for control of the Dardanelles and for access to the Persian Gulf. In March 1945, Moscow denounced the Russo-Turkish Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality. In June, Turkey was asked to consent to the establishment of Russian naval bases in the Turkish straits. This demand was soon accompanied by an ominous campaign of intimidation. From the Soviet Caucasus there rose clamour for the detachment from Turkey of the Kars and Ardahan regions, which the Bolsheviks had ceded in 1921. The Turks mobilised, and as late as March 1946 headlines announced heavy concentrations of Russian troops on the Turkish-Soviet frontier.

About the same time the Persian conflict flared up. Moscow raised a demand for oil concessions similar to those enjoyed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Soviet troops stationed in northern Iran for the duration of the Second World War delayed their departure. Soviet occupation authorities set up a quasi-autonomous regime in Iranian Azerbaijan. The West anxiously speculated about further Russian intentions. Would the Soviets detach Iranian Azerbaijan from Iran and unite it with Soviet Azerbaijan? Or would they use their grip on northern Iran to install a pro-Soviet government in Teheran itself? The headlines irresponsibly overplayed the conflict and reported that Russian armoured columns were advancing towards the capital.

Russia’s bid for domination over the Middle East seemed to be developing according to all rules of the game; an additional point was added to it by Stalin’s demand, made at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, for a share in the proposed trusteeship over Tripolitania.

Nearly five years have passed and nothing has happened. The dream of Russian control over Constantinople is still just that. The menace of the Bear advancing to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, a menace which haunted British diplomacy in the last century, has also faded considerably. Even the professional diplomats hardly remember now how startled they once were by the Russian claims to Tripolitania.

Were all these demands and aspirations the figments of frightened Western imaginations? Certainly not, even though the West might have spared itself some moments of hysterical panic. The expansionist impetus which war and victory had imparted to Stalin’s Russia did seek an outlet along the traditional lines of Russian diplomatic offensives, the Dardanelles and the Persian Gulf. These were, incidentally, the only areas bordering on Russia which had not been engulfed by the war. Here the Allied powers had redrawn no maps and carried out no new division of spheres of influence. Europe and the Far East had been turned upside down, but here the status quo seemed to survive intact, leaving no room for Russian expansion. Stalin’s diplomacy saw a chance to remedy this while the international situation still seemed fluid. Since in those days the Kremlin couched its objectives in traditional Russian terms, rather than in revolutionary Communist ones, it took up the demands which had been part and parcel of the Tsarist diplomatic tradition. Having stepped into the shoes of the last Tsar, Stalin claimed the prizes that the last Tsar, if he had been among the victors in 1918, would have regarded as his. Had not the British, under the secret Treaty of London in 1915, promised the Turkish straits to Nicholas II? Had Britain and Russia not kept Persia under their joint tutelage after the agreement of 1907?

It did not take Stalin long to realise that the Russian title deeds of 1907 and 1915, title deeds to which, as a Bolshevik, he could only allude but not expressly refer, were not recognised as valid by the British, let alone the Americans, in 1945. Nor did it take him long to see that if he tried to overpower Turkey or Iran it would mean war.

And so Stalin stopped. The Middle Eastern game was not worth the candle.

It is instructive to note how many humiliations Stalin consequently had to swallow. At the first regular assembly of the United Nations, Russia was in the dock. Stalin had to order the withdrawal of his troops from northern Iran, under pressure from the Security Council. Then he became involved in a cat-and-mouse game over oil concessions. Teheran held out the promise of the concessions to Moscow and withdrew it, then held it out again and withdrew it again with a flourish of supreme nationalist dignity and wrath (a wrath which spared, however, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company). Then the Soviet-sponsored regime in Iranian Azerbaijan was suppressed, its adherents were imprisoned, deported, tortured and hanged, while Stalin did not even lift a finger in their defence.

No less humiliating for the Russians were the happenings in the Dardanelles, where British and American warships began to pay demonstrative visits. Stalin had to tone down the high pitch of his threats and demands to a low-frequency propagandist hum. In this he was following an old Russian habit. At least four times Tsarist Russia had been ‘on the point’ of acquiring Constantinople: under Catherine II in the eighteenth century, under Nicholas I in 1833, under Alexander II in 1878, and finally under Nicholas II in the First World War. But each time the Tsars threatened to send their navies to patrol the waters ‘at the windows of the Sultan’s palace’, they withdrew at the last moment and let the glittering prize slip from their hands. The much-coveted Constantinople was not worth a major war to the Tsars, nor was it to Stalin.

Then the East-West conflict heightened, and in its course Russian diplomacy has retranslated its texts from the idiom of Russian traditionalism into the style of the Cominform. In Eastern and Central Europe the Red Army has sponsored the revolutions and the People’s Democracies from above. In China Mao Tse-tung has emerged as the leader of a genuine revolution, the momentum of which has been watched by the Kremlin with surprise and mixed feelings. Civil war has shaken Indo-China, Indonesia and Malaya. Thus the balance of forces has been shifting and changing nearly everywhere. Only in the Middle East has the old balance still remained intact. Neither in Iran nor in Iraq, neither in Syria nor in the Lebanon, neither in Turkey nor in Egypt has Russia made any headway. In none of these countries have the Russians been in military occupation, and in none have native Communist or pro-Communist forces been strong enough to make their own revolution. And so the old regimes, with their intrigues, periodic coups d'état and assassinations, with their varying degrees of vitality and corruption and of social and political incompetence, carry on under varying degrees of dependence on the West. The old, supposedly immutable East seems to have shrunk to the Middle East.

Yet for Russia the Middle East is of first-rate strategic importance. Nowhere are its flanks so exposed as there. Its European frontier is protected by a wide glacis. Its far-eastern fringe was not easily accessible to an invader even before the Chinese revolution; and it is doubly inaccessible now. Only the Caucasus, with its Baku oil fields, has remained a vulnerable target for any hostile force operating from the Middle East. The temptation for Russia to bring under control the outlying springboards for possible attack is strong. In spite of this, nothing foreshadows dramatic Russian action, because any Russian military move against Turkey or Iran would clearly mean world war. Stalin is therefore as unlikely to order his armoured columns to move on Teheran now as he was five years ago.

Stalin must also reckon with the weakness of revolutionary forces in the Middle East. To be sure, there is no lack of social grievance and discontent there. What is lacking is the organising factor that would use that discontent for social upheaval. The Middle East has known little industrial advance in the last few decades, and its urban working class has remained insignificant. Its peasantry has not the social coherence and the rebellious spirit that have been characteristic of the Chinese.

For these reasons, the revolutionary potentialities of the Middle East were treated sceptically in the old Comintern. Its Sixth Congress, at which the chances of Communism in the colonial and semi-colonial countries were appraised, took place in 1928, and a lot was said about prospects in China, Korea, Indonesia, India and Indo-China, but only very little about the Middle East. In this respect the position has not changed much since. The Communist parties have been suppressed and savagely persecuted in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. From the underground they appeal mainly to disgruntled groups of the intelligentsia, which so far have failed to establish themselves as the leaders of any wider popular forces. The one exception seems to be the Tudeh Party in Iran, which some observers believe was strong enough two or three years ago to reach out for power. But the Tudeh did not seize its chance then, and it has been suppressed strongly since.

A striking indication of the low view taken by the Kremlin of the chances of revolutionary action in the Arab countries has been its policy towards Israel. Since the earliest days the Communist attitude towards Zionist aspirations was one of implacable hostility. Zionism was condemned as a facet of British imperialism, and the Communist parties backed Arab nationalism to the hilt. The recent Russian support of the Israeli claim to independent statehood in Palestine was therefore a volte face, which could only alienate Arab sympathies. The Kremlin would not have acted thus unless it had made up its mind that it could expect no tangible gain from backing the Arabs. It perceived immediately that the small Jewish community in Israel represented more political dynamism than did the many millions of inert Arabs. It probably expected more gratitude from Israel than it has received, and so its propagandists have had no trouble in swinging back to the Arab side. It is harder to make the Arabs swing over to the Soviet side.

In the longer run Russia’s Middle Eastern position may grow much stronger. The impact of the Chinese revolution upon the people of the Middle East cannot yet be gauged. It would be very strange indeed if this western fringe of Asia were to remain unaffected by sweeping changes on the Asian mainland. The example of China may do something to stir the peasants of Iran and Iraq to revolt; and the battle-cry ‘Asia for the Asians!’, which now means ‘Asia for Communism’, may yet find a resounding echo even in the deserts of Arabia. But this is not more than a possibility; and, in any event, some time must elapse before the impact of the Chinese revolution begins to be apparent.

Meanwhile, Stalin is biding his time. His propagandists denounce the governments in Teheran, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Ankara and Cairo. They warn the Middle Eastern peoples against the United States as the successor to the British Empire, bent on establishing its influence in alliance with the feudal or ‘pre-feudal’ ruling groups. The native intelligentsia, even those among them who are very remote from Communism, take notice of such warnings and suspiciously watch the American newcomers: the members of military and economic missions, the oil prospectors and builders of pipelines, the recruiters of labour.

The Soviet propagandist at his best can be quite effective: ‘In Saudi Arabia’, he says, ‘there exists to this day the custom of cutting off the hands of convicted criminals, and this is still practised on the estates of the Arabian-American Oil Company. But now the executioner’s knife is sterilised in the hospital, and an American doctor, present at the torture, puts the stitches to the cut-off limb. This exemplifies the kind of civilisation for which the Yankees at Ibn Saud’s court stand.’

Soviet diplomats nevertheless have to spend some of their most subtle efforts on precisely those ruling groups and cliques that their propagandists denounce. The Russian diplomats are constantly trying to find out to what extent the Western powers are succeeding in bringing the Middle East under their influence, and the Soviets are kept busy trying to put spokes into this wheel. This requires a good deal of court intrigue, bribery and other conventional Middle Eastern diplomatic byplay. Western observers on the spot watch Soviet moves with some excitement and try to read the omens:

This is the small change of local diplomatic business, and it brings the Russians only the minutest rewards. They may get somewhat more benefit from the inner rivalries of the Middle Eastern governments and the extent to which Western missions encourage these. The more the Middle East is divided the better, from the Russian viewpoint, since at present it can be unified only under Western guidance. And so Soviet diplomats and propagandists subtly help to deepen the cleavages in the Arab League, the rivalry between Iraq and Egypt, the old distrust between Arabs and Turks, and a thousand and one other petty antagonisms and feuds spun cobweb-like around court, mosque and bazaar. The thicker this cobweb, the more difficult it is for the Western powers to systematise the military and political organisation of the Middle East.

Since Stalin stopped before taking any risky action in 1945 and 1946, the Middle East has relapsed into its old half-dreamy, half-feverish mode of existence. The powder kegs are not likely to explode here with the thunder and the smoke with which they have gone off in the Far East. Only if the Russians were ready for world war would they cross the frontiers in order to seize the approaches to the Caucasus and to deny the West the use of an important jumping-off place.