The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence

The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence

by Oles M. Smolansky, Bettie M. Smolanksy

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In The USSR and Iraq, the first major study of Soviet-Iraqi relations, Oles M. Smolansky examines the history of the relationship between these two countries during the past twenty years and attempts to dispel the misconception that the Soviet Union has enjoyed undue influence over Iraq.
Drawing on ten years of research in Western, Arab, and Soviet sources, Smolansky analyzes the complex issues at the center of Soviet-Iraqi relations from 1968 through 1988, including the nationalization of the oil industry, the Kurdish question, the Iraqi Communist Party, the affairs of the Persian/Arabian Gulf, and, ultimately, the war between Iraq and Iran.
Smolansky concludes that Iraq has never been under the dominant influence of Moscow, nor has it even been a loyal Soviet ally. In fact, Iraq has managed to reap major benefits from the relationship without losing its autonomy or sacrificing its major interests. The author discusses the Soviet Union and Iraq within the larger framework of the nature of influence relationships between great and small powers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398790
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 358
File size: 547 KB

About the Author

Oles M. Smolanksy is University Professor of Public Relations at Leigh University.

Bettie M. Smolansky is Professor of Sociology at Moravian College.

Read an Excerpt

The USSR and Iraq

The Soviet Quest for Influence

By Oles M. Smolansky, Bettie M. Smolansky

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9879-0


Soviet-Iraqi Relations, 1958–1980

When a military coup overthrew the pro-Western monarchy in Baghdad in July 1958, the Kremlin, led by irrepressible Nikita Khrushchev, expressed a great deal of interest in the newly created republic. This was not surprising. Iraq had by then emerged as an important Arab state whose population base and economic potential (above all its huge oil reserves) propelled it into a position of leadership in a region engaged in shaking off the colonial tutelage and in asserting its political and, eventually, economic independence from the Western "imperialist" powers.

The aspirations and the actions of the Iraqi military corresponded closely–or so it seemed to the Kremlin–to the analysis of the situation in the Third World which Khrushchev developed in the mid-1950s. Specifically, the Soviet leader rejected the ideological precept which Stalin adhered to in the post-World War II period. It will be recalled that, according to Stalin's "two camp" view of the world, "those who are not with us, are against us." Since only the communists were working for "proletarian" revolutions and since the native leaders of the emerging Third World countries were not communists, they were automatically relegated to the enemy camp. This narrow definition, explained by Stalin's preoccupation with more pressing problems (such as postwar reconstruction and absorption of Eastern Europe into the communist system, to name but the most obvious ones), deprived the USSR of an opportunity to cooperate with the national liberation movements which were sweeping across Asia (and, later, Africa) and to benefit directly from the breakup of the colonial empires which began after the end of World War II.

In contrast to Stalin, Khrushchev recognized that the policies and actions of many national liberation movements were complementary to the objectives which the Soviet government was pursuing in the international arena. Specifically, the "national bourgeoisie" of the "colonial and dependent" Third World countries were bent on securing the political and economic independence of their respective states. In the process, the newly independent countries as well as those struggling to achieve their independence were undermining the entire "capitalist" system which, according to Marx and Lenin, had thrived on economic exploitation and politico-military control of the "colonial hinterland." Adopting this Leninist interpretation to current conditions, Khrushchev argued that "those who are not against us, are with us (at least for the time being)." In line with this approach, he extended superpower competition to the Third World and offered military, economic, and technical support to any anti-Western developing country that asked for Soviet assistance. The results of the change in Soviet policy were outwardly impressive: a number of important Third World countries– among them India, Indonesia, Burma, Egypt, Syria, Ghana, and, subsequently, Iraq–declared their friendship for and improved relations with the USSR and sided with it on a number of international problems in which Moscow was directly involved. In no instance, however, did the leaders of the "positive neutralist" (later nonaligned) states compromise their own national interests or become Soviet stooges. In any event, in pursuing his grandiose scheme of attacking the colonial empires through their Asian and African "backyards" regardless of the costs involved, Khrushchev strained Soviet resources. He was ultimately accused in the Politburo of "hare-brained schemes," and the task of introducing some rationality into Moscow's relations with its Third World clients was left to Leonid Brezhnev, who assumed power in 1964. As a result of the reappraisal of Soviet policies in the Third World, the Kremlin's ambitions were scaled down significantly. Military, economic, and technical assistance were still made available to important clients, but the overriding factor was no longer their abstract "contribution" to the "struggle against capitalism" but some practical advantage which they offered the USSR in its quest to protect and advance its national interests. In addition, Moscow endeavored also to woo some openly pro-Western Third World states, such as Mohammed Reza Shah's Iran and Turkey and Pakistan. Thus, Brezhnev's Kremlin continued to adhere to the bipolar view of the world and remained committed to the concept of global competition, which it pursued vigorously, with the "capitalist" West and its leading exponent, the United States. In this sense, Brezhnev did not differ from Khrushchev. Brezhnev also shared his predecessor's view that the newly independent states had an important role to play in the worldwide competition between the two antagonistic systems. However, although agreeing on principle, the two leaders disagreed on the question of benefits which the USSR should be deriving from an association with a Third World client. Although Khrushchev did not view utility as an important issue, to Brezhnev, it became a major consideration. A closer look at the countries which, in the 1970s, emerged as Moscow's main Third World clients supports this proposition.

Geopolitically, Vietnam, Somalia (later Ethiopia), South Yemen (the PDRY), Egypt, Syria, Angola, and Cuba were all important regional actors which also, at one time or another, had made some of their naval and air facilities available to the Soviet navy and air force. Iraq, too, fell into this category, but its importance to the USSR was enhanced by its location in the Persian Gulf, a region which, because of its enormous oil resources, had attracted a great deal of Western attention. Baghdad's anti-Western credentials and policies, directed at undermining "imperialist" positions and influence, were in harmony with Moscow's own position. Last but not least, Iraq belonged to a small group of Third World clients which, because of their economic wealth, were able to secure Soviet military and industrial equipment in exchange for hard currency or oil. All of these considerations made Iraq a particularly important and attractive client, explaining the relative benevolence with which it was treated by Brezhnev's Kremlin in spite of occasionally grave provocations.


Diplomatic relations between Iraq and the Soviet Union were first established in 1944, during the latter stages of World War II. They were broken off in 1955 by Prime Minister Nuri al-Said after Moscow criticized his government's decision to join the Baghdad Pact. In July 1958, following the coup that brought Colonel Abd al-Kerim Kassem to power, the USSR promptly recognized the Iraqi Republic. This initiative and the subsequent improvement in Moscow-Baghdad relations were based, above all, on the Kremlin's appreciation of the anti-Western stance adopted by the republican regime. In late 1958 Iraq and the USSR signed their first trade and military assistance agreements. In addition to East-West competition, Moscow's support of Kassem coincided with, and was influenced by, the deterioration of relations between Baghdad and Cairo. As the crisis unfolded, the Soviets sided with Iraq. They did so, in part, because of the Kremlin's growing disenchantment with Gamal Abd al-Nasser and because, initially, Kassem had initiated a number of "progressive" reforms. (Among other things, the Iraqi Communist party was allowed, for the first time, to operate openly and in relative freedom from government persecution.)

In March 1959 Baghdad and Moscow signed another agreement pledging $137 million for Iraq's economic development. In late spring and summer Iraq's formal withdrawal from the Baghdad Pact was followed by increased bilateral cooperation in economic as well as military spheres. Relations cooled considerably in the period between 1960 and 1962, in part as a result of Kassem's crackdown on the Iraqi Communist party. Nevertheless, in spite of disenchantment with Kassem, the USSR did not curtail its economic and military assistance programs to Iraq.

The Arab Socialist Renaissance party–the Ba'th (Renaissance in Arabic)–staged its first coup in Iraq in February 1963. Following the atrocities which the government committed against the Iraqi Communist organization, relations between Baghdad and Moscow deteriorated sharply, and the Kremlin was pleased when the ruling Ba'th party was overthrown in November 1963. In July 1964 the USSR resumed arms shipments to Iraq, then headed by Colonel Abd al-Salam Aref, who had discontinued government persecution of the Communist party as well as military operations against the Kurdish nationalists in the northern part of the country. In December 1967, the Soviet Union undertook to assist Iraq in developing its oil resources (chapter 2).

Relations from 1968–1975

In July 1968, the Ba'th returned to power in Iraq, an occasion that Moscow did not seem to mind. The ruling Ba'th and the Iraqi Communist party had, in the meantime, reached a tentative understanding not to return to the bloody confrontation of 1963 (chapter 4). Moreover, the Ba'th was well known for its strong anti-Western, and particularly anti-U.S., views. One of the early manifestations of Moscow-Baghdad rapprochement was the Kremlin's consent, given in 1969, to provide Iraq with sizable quantities of modern arms, followed by economic and technical aid agreements.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Ba'th made a major effort to consolidate its power in Iraq and to propel Baghdad into a position of regional leadership in the Persian Gulf as well as in the wider Arab East. The party leaders recognized early on that Soviet support was indispensable for the attainment of many of their political and economic objectives. Leading among the domestic problems were the Kurdish question and, above all, the quest to nationalize the assets of the Western oil companies operating in Iraq. Because resolution of these issues depended on Soviet cooperation, the political role of the Communist party, in which Moscow was displaying an interest, became another sensitive problem for the Ba'th to tackle (chapters 2, 3, and 4).

In general, in the period between 1968 and 1975, the Ba'th pursued policies which conformed to its leaders' perceptions of Iraq's national interests. At the same time, however, the ruling party went out of its way in an effort not to antagonize the USSR. For example, in 1970 Baghdad accepted the principle of Kurdish autonomy, a move long favored by Moscow. In 1971, the Ba'th promulgated the draft National Action Charter, intended to secure the political backing of the Kurdistan Democratic party and of the Iraqi Communist party. The latter supported the Ba'thi initiative, but the former did not. As a result, when relations between the Kurds and the central government deteriorated in 1972 and 1973, the Communists as well as the USSR sided with the ruling Ba'th. Moreover, as already noted, the authorities were determined to nationalize the country's petroleum industry, an ambition which was fully backed by Moscow as well as by the Iraqi Communist party.

In addition to domestic considerations, Baghdad also needed Soviet support on the regional as well as on the wider international scenes. Due to the militant radicalism of its ideology, Iraq was generally isolated in the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, as will be shown in chapter 5, Baghdad's attention was focused largely on its rivalry with neighboring Iran. Because its ruler, Mohammed Reza Shah, was also driven by an ambition to play a dominant regional role, and because relations between the two states were usually tense, Baghdad felt the need to expand and modernize its armed forces. Given the Ba'th's strong anti-Western bent, sophisticated military equipment could have been obtained initially only from the USSR. (Of course, Soviet arms could have been used for other purposes, such as wars against Israel or, more to the point, in the fighting against the Kurds.)

Moscow's political backing was secured in April 1972, when the two states signed a fifteen-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Based on the Egyptian model of 1971, the accord provided for "comprehensive cooperation" in the political, economic, cultural, and "other fields." The only direct references to military cooperation were contained in Article 8 (the signatories agreed to "coordinate their positions" in case of a threat to peace) and in Article 9 (the parties undertook to assist each other in strengthening their "defense capabilities"). In retrospect, it would appear that the initiative for the 1972 treaty emanated from Baghdad. Although Iraq's immediate objective was to nationalize its oil industry, the accord was also intended generally to strengthen the domestic and international positions of the Ba'th.

As it turned out, the USSR proved willing to accommodate another important Third World nation. (Similar treaties had already been signed with India and Egypt.) Strategically, Iraq as well as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)–the only Persian Gulf-Arabian peninsula countries to have developed close relations with the Soviet Union–were situated on the western fringes of the Indian Ocean in which the Kremlin had developed an interest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Politically, in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East, Iraq had emerged as a staunch opponent of "imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism," a line which, in the main, corresponded with the Soviet position. To be sure, Moscow and Baghdad differed on the problem of Israel's existence, with the Ba'th, but not the Kremlin, demanding the destruction of the "Zionist entity." More often than not, however, this particular issue was of little practical significance and was submerged in the vociferous "anti-imperialist" and "anti-Zionist" propaganda emanating from both capitals. Domestically, as noted, the USSR favored autonomy for the Kurds as well as political freedom for the Iraqi Communist party, issues on which the Ba'th was initially prepared to give some ground. Organizationally, the Ba'th had expressed an interest in establishing a relatively close working relationship with the Soviet Communist party (CPSU)–the Iraqis wished to draw on its long experience in such matters as imposing party control on the executive branch of the government as well as on the military. Although not widely publicized in either capital, the CPSU was not averse to maintaining a party-to-party relationship with the Ba'th. Economically, the Kremlin wholeheartedly approved of Baghdad's determination to nationalize the Iraq Petroleum Company and its affiliates. In addition to obvious political advantages, the move against major Western oil interests also promised significant economic gains. In return for Soviet goods and services, required in the initial stages to keep the petroleum industry going, the USSR expected to be paid in hard currency or in oil. (Precedents for such exchanges had been established before 1972.) Militarily, in contrast, the Soviets gained less than was commonly assumed in the West. Contrary to reports circulating in the early 1970s, no Iraqi bases were placed at the USSR's disposal. In retrospect, it appears that the Soviet air force and the navy were given limited access to some Iraqi military facilities. However, as subsequently became apparent, both Soviet use of the Iraqi airfields and Soviet naval visits to the Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasr proved to be limited as well as rare.

Thus, in entering the 1972 treaty, Iraq and the USSR were motivated by enlightened self-interest–both endeavored to promote their respective interests and were prepared to make some concessions to achieve their goals. The Soviets extended Baghdad important military aid and lent their political and economic support to Iraq's drive to nationalize the Western oil companies. In return, the ruling Ba'th eased its stance on the Kurdish and communist problems, offered limited use of its naval and air facilities, and, above all, provided the USSR with important economic opportunities in Iraq. The bilateral cooperation served their interests well. Both countries derived important benefits from it, explaining why, in the first half of the 1970s, the USSR and Iraq maintained a relatively close military, political, and economic relationship.

It bears repeating that the initial delivery of Soviet weapons to Iraq occurred in late 1958, the year of the overthrow of the pro-Western monarchy. Another infusion of arms was made in the late 1960s. As a result, by mid-1971, the USSR had supplied Iraq with "110 MIG-21 and su-7 fighters, over 20 helicopters and trainers, 100-150 tanks, some 300 armored personnel carriers, and about 500 field guns and artillery rockets." After the signing of the 1972 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, Baghdad also took delivery of SA-3 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles; TU-22 medium-range bombers ("the first and [at the time] only deployment of this type of aircraft outside the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe"); Scud surface-to-surface missiles armed with conventional warheads; and MIG-23 fighters, then the most advanced model available to the USSR. The arrival of TU-22S and MIG-23S significantly improved the effectiveness of the Iraqi air force. Finally, in January 1975 Moscow undertook to supply an unspecified number of armored personnel carriers, artillery, missiles, Osa patrol boats, and p-6 torpedo boats.

Concurrently, the USSR was making an important contribution to the economic development of Iraq. Shortly after the nationalization of the Iraq Petroleum Company on June 1, 1972, Minister of Industry Taha al-Jazrawi visited Moscow and signed a number of agreements. One, in particular, provided for the repayment of all Soviet loans in oil "instead of only 70 percent as stipulated previously." As a result, in 1973 the USSR imported 4 million tons of Iraqi crude.


Excerpted from The USSR and Iraq by Oles M. Smolansky, Bettie M. Smolansky. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Nature of Influence Relationships,
The Nature of Influence,
The Plan of the Book,
1 Soviet-Iraqi Relations, 1958–1980,
Part One Domestic Problems,
2 Nationalization of the Oil Industry,
3 The Kurdish Question,
4 The Iraqi Communist Party,
Part Two Regional Problems,
5 The Persian Gulf, 1968–1975: Problems of Security and Stability,
6 The Persian Gulf, 1975–1980: Problems of Security and Stability,
7 The Iran-Iraq War,
Conclusion: The Lessons of the Soviet Quest for Influence in Iraq,
About the Authors,

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