- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

RUSSIA AND THE ARABS

By Yevgeny Primakov

Basic Books, $29.95, 400 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

With the world nearing crisis mode over the Iranian nuclear initiative, what support can the United States expect from the USSR? Yevgeny Primakov held three of the top positions in the Russian government - head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (successor to the KGB), foreign minister and then prime minister. And in a timely book, Mr. Primakov has what sounds like reassuring thoughts on what Moscow might be thinking at the moment.

Mr. Primakov notes repeated threats by Iranian leaders “to wipe Israel off the map,” then comments, “I feel sure that nobody - including Russia - would allow that message to be made a reality.”

He is dubious about the efficacy of economic sanctions. “If the hope is to motivate more realistically minded figures to seize the upper hand in the Iranian leadership, then it’s hard to see how sanctions - which would hit ordinary people hardest - would help tip the balance of power toward them. On the contrary, as the example of Iraq had taught us, Iranian politics would become increasingly radicalized.”

Regardless of how the Iranian nuclear scenario plays out in the coming days, it is yet another episode in the history of a region wracked with turmoil in the post-1945 era. Mr. Primakov’s book offers an insight into how Moscow perceived what was happening in the region.

Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but when I read a book by a former intelligence officer, regardless of who he served, I reflexively wonder whether I am being presented an approximation of the truth or a message with a deliberate spin. Such is certainly the case with Mr. Primakov’s work.

For one thing, Mr. Primakov’s resume veritably shouts out, loudly, “spook.” He holds a doctorate, headed two think tanks in the old USSR and had stints as a correspondent in the Middle East for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union - positions that are well known as cover assignments for a KGB officer.

So, unsurprisingly, when the USSR collapses, he pops up as head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, with posts as foreign minister and prime minister following. In whatever capacity, he spent his years at the epicenter of public life in Moscow.

In any event, here are some major points made by Mr. Primakov as he reviews his decades in the Middle East, and what he feels were the forces that shaped the region. He offers a benign picture of the Soviet role:

c Contrary to what Western intelligence agencies felt at the time, the Soviet Union played no role in the nationalist coups that toppled governments in Egypt, Iraq and Syria at mid-century. “It built links with their new leaders - or rather the new leaders built links - but this was after their revolutions. These leaders seized power not because of any plots orchestrated by Moscow, but because of the collapse of the policies of Britain and France, imposed either directly or by their corrupt Arab representatives.”

c Policies of the former colonial parties, “and later those of the United States,” drove a number of Arab countries into partnership with the Soviets. He relates how a British ambassador repeatedly called Egyptian King Farouk “my boy.”

c The Soviets’ relationships with these nationalist governments “were not ideologically socialist, developed slowly, and were far from easy to maintain.”

c The Soviets’ split with Israel, after its swift recognition of its independence in 1948, came about because of the Zionists’ determination “to bring about mass immigration into Israel of Jews from the countries to which they had been ‘dispersed,’ with particular attention focused on the Soviet Union.” Joseph Stalin was prepared to permit a small stream of immigration “as an investment in Israel’s socialist beginnings” but the outflow quickly became a “damaging brain drain.”

c And, of course, the Soviets had no role in encouraging violence by the likes of Yasser Arafat or other Middle Eastern leaders who sought to topple Israel.

One cannot challenge a major assertion by Mr. Primakov - the support that both the United States and the USSR gave to its “client states” was not without limit. As he writes, “Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States was willing to allow a situation to develop in which they might get drawn into a direct military confrontation with one another.”

One of the more intriguing sections deals with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, who Mr. Primakov depicts as a master of miscalculation, and who eventually came to grief because he ignored Soviet advice.

In Mr. Primakov’s view, Saddam attained power with U.S. support (he claims, without any offer of proof, that the CIA collaborated in an assassination attempt against one of his earlier opponents) and received American aid in his protracted war with Iran. Given this background, Saddam came to believe that “the Americans would tolerate his escapades indefinitely, as long as he didn’t directly target any U.S. interests.”

After Iraq’s 1998 invasion of Kuwait, Mr. Primakov met with Saddam three times to urge him to withdraw. Saddam scoffed, and in rapid succession he made three major misjudgments: He argued to Mr. Primakov that Washington was bluffing. It would never bomb Iraq. And it would never invade and destroy his army. He was wrong on every count, as events worked out.

Mr. Primakov next details a failed mission he undertook on order of President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to stave off the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mr. Putin directed Mr. Primakov to suggest that Saddam resign the presidency (but retain his party posts) and have Parliament call free elections. Saddam flatly refused.

Mr. Primakov reminded him of what happened in 1998, when he ignored Soviet warnings about Kuwait. “Saddam said nothing but patted me on the shoulder and went out of the room.” His foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, said - loud enough for Saddam to hear - “Ten years from now, we’ll see who was right - our beloved president or Primakov.”

To Mr. Primakov, Saddam had no sense of reality. At the height of the Kuwait crisis in 1998, “he had assured me (and I think he sincerely believed it) that Arab people everywhere welcomed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. …” And in the run-up to the 2003 war, he refused to let U.N. atomic inspectors into Iraq, even though he knew the suspected nuclear materials did not exist.

In sum, Saddam’s intransigence - and failure to recognize reality - earned him a trip to the gallows. Is the Iranian leadership on the same path?

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence.

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