22 JULY 1972, Page 4

The iel


Towards a balanced Middle East Both the motives behind, and the consequences of, President Sadat's dramatic dismissal of 20,000 Russian military ' advisers ' from Egypt are obscure. But one fact must be seized upon immediately: the Russians are clearly determined in their policy of denying to the Egyptians the highly sophisticated modern weapons — notably the TU 16 long-range bombers, and the new high-altitude MIG interceptor fighter planes — which the Egyptian Government regards as essential if Egypt is to have any prospect of a successful confrontation with Israel. The Soviet leaders are prepared to accept even dismissal from what has been their best fortified position in the Middle East rather than yield to President Sadat's clamant appeals. Since the United States is providing its Israeli friends with better military hardware than the Russians are giving to the Egyptians, this is a clear indication that Russia is not seriously interested in the ultimate triumph of the Arab cause, and is prepared to sacrifice the ambition of its Middle East clients to its desire for better relations with the United States. This is a clarification of Russian policy wholly to be welcomed, especially in that it eliminates the possibility of a Russo-American confrontation arising out of another Arab-Israeli crisis.

The Soviet-Egyptian Treaty of Friendship remains in force, and ' President Sadat has stressed his desire to remain on good terms with his Soviet patrons. But much more important than this is the treaty which Russia has recently signed with Iraq. This treaty, which apparently has angered the Egyptians, provides the Soviet Union with guaranteed permanent military bases, under Russian sovereignty, in that country. The terms of this treaty are far more advantageous to the Russians than the terms of their treaty with Egypt, and it provides them with the kind of security which enables them to contemplate a rupture with Egypt with something approaching equanimity. The Iraqis are now, however, concentrating more on their rivalry with Iran than on their quarrel with Israel, and there is the ever-present danger that Russia may be driven to side offensively rather than defensively with Bagdad against Teheran, especially since an Iraqi Government can point to the possibility of Russia exercising piessure on a country with which it shares \\i,ike Russia will probably find it easier to a land fronti r. 0\n the ther hand,-Iraq Is a fundamentally unstable countr wh'ile ,E pt is a fundarnentally stable one; and a protector-ion manipulate le contending forces within Iraq so as to prevent relations witI Iran from getting out of hand. When the dust has settled it will probably become clear that the Russian position in the Middle East has not been significantly weakened, while Mr Brezhnev and Mr Kosygin have rid themselves of the worst aspects of a potentially embarrassing commitment.

Egypt, said Napoleon, was "the most important country." Although her importance has been much reduced by the closure of the Suez Canal, and growing awareness of its inadequacy, especially for modern tanker traffic, there is still some life left in the aphorism, although it makes more sense if it is applied to the Middle East as a whole. Quite apart from the oil resources of the Middle Eastern and North African countries, the area occupies, and has always occupied, a potentially strategically decisive geographical position in the world. What happens there, especially when we consider all the possible interactions and combinations from the Saudi Arabian peninsula through to Iran, can very quickly affect the position in Central Asia and particularly the relations between India and Pakistan, towards which Moslem country the Shah has been increasingly turning his attention. And Libya, active everywhere under Colonel Gaddaffi — who is, incidentally, exceptionally close to President Sadat — has been extending her efforts in both Malta and Turkey. In this highly complicated system of states of uncertain balance only the Russians, among outside powers, possess an undisturbed base of greatly important potential. For good or ill Russian influence must be considered great, if not.dominant.

This points to what is probably the most important consequence of Egypt's new policy, forced upon and accepted by Russia: that is the downgrading of the Arab-Israeli struggle in political importance. The conflict which has dominated so much thinking about the Middle East in recent years will be seen increasingly to have very little other than a regional relevance. It is President Sadat's clear intention himself to play down the struggle with Israel in practical as opposed to rhetorical terms, an intention which can now become an overt policy, given the splendid excuse that Egypt can nowhere acquire the weapons • necessary to give hope in any renewed struggle. At the same time we can expect the acceleration of the gradual development of British reconciliation with Egypt — a development symbolised by Sir Alec Douglas-Home's visit to Cairo, and deeply influenced by Sir Alec's strong personal belief that the Egyptian Government is set on peace.

British policy in the Middle East has, indeed, been increasingly sensible and imaginative since the last election, even allowing for the early setback caused by the discovery that withdrawal from the Gulf was an inescapable imperative. Our relations. with Iran are excellent and our friendship with Saudi Arabia particularly close. We are still not without influence and position among the sheikhdoms and have been able to help a great deal to bring King Feisal and the Shah close together, a task rendered exceptionally difficult by what might have been their competing objectives in a Gulf which the king calls Arabian and the Shah calls Persian. Some of the potential fruits of this patient and multi-pronged policy of developing relations with the Moslem powers were seen in the recent visit to Cairo of Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, and the exploratory talks he had on defence matters with the Egyptian Government. If Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia can be brought together, at a time when Egypt herself is also developing her relations with Syria and Libya, then an enlightened policy and stable system of regional self-dependence, based on a refusal to quarrel within the group, and a determination to prevent outside interests becoming excessively powerful, could emerge. Such a system would be highly conducive both to peace and to the interests of such powers as France and ourselves.