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THE FINAL CURTAIN : An End to the Superpowers' Territorial Tug-of-War : REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: MIDEAST

December 31, 1991|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Since the fabled days of the 19th Century, when agents of the czars schemed against the British in "the great game" for power and influence in strategic Afghanistan, Moscow has looked south to opportunities--and adversaries.

Geopolitically, in this century, under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, little changed except the ideological language. And the Muslim nations along the underbelly of the great northern bear will present the same mixed bag to diplomats of the Soviet Union's successors.

Initiatives are already under way. As Boris N. Yeltsin was taking over the Soviet Foreign Ministry in the name of the Russian Federation earlier this month, his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, was in Iran, pledging to honor a 1989 Moscow deal to build a gas pipeline and railroad across the frontier. Rutskoi said Yeltsin would make Tehran the first stop on a Middle East tour.

But whatever lies ahead for the remnant republics of the Soviet empire, the Middle East has already tasted change. Even before the Persian Gulf War and the collapse of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's rule in Moscow, Arab leaders were conceding that the superpower rivalry that marked events in the region for the past half-century was over.

To some, like Soviet-armed Syria, it was a bitter pill. Syrian hopes of "strategic parity" with Israel were dashed with the first signs of economic collapse in the East Bloc more than two years ago. Concessionary weapons sales, Moscow's ticket to regional influence, were shut down.

But gone too are major incendiary elements that gave the label "tinderbox" to the Middle East. Peace may not come to the region, but war is no longer likely to pull Moscow and Washington into a missiles-drawn confrontation. Joel Marcus, writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, takes an even more sanguine view: "Without Soviet meddling in the region, and especially without Soviet backing, no Arab country really threatens the existence of Israel."

Under Josef Stalin and his successors, the region became an arena of testing U.S. and Western power after World War II, launching the decades when Moscow, a nuclear power with millions of men under arms, was spreading influence and control farther than the czars ever dreamed. The East European states became mere vassals to Soviet authority, while Moscow and Beijing competed as puppet masters in the Third World and Asia.

In the Middle East, the Soviets had only mixed early success, with their strongest foothold in Iran. The Soviet Union and Britain occupied Iran during World War II, assuring a safe route for allied supplies to the Red Army. When the war ended, the Soviets refused to withdraw, collaborating with Tudeh, the Iranian Communist party, to establish pro-Soviet rump states in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. Only under heavy American and U.N. pressure did the occupiers finally withdraw in May, 1946, a year after the war ended.

Less successful was the Kremlin attempt to get the United Nations to reward its wartime role with a trusteeship over the former Italian province of Tripolitania--now Libya--which would have given Moscow the Mediterranean port it had sought so long. The United States and its allies at the United Nations quashed the initiative.

Down but not out, the Soviets finally obtained influence--but no naval base--in Libya with the 1969 coup of Col. Moammar Kadafi, whose largely Moscow-armed military has been a intermittent source of unrest in North Africa. And unlike Syria, Kadafi's Libya had plenty of petrodollars to pay for its weapons.

However Syria, which was to become Moscow's No. 1 Arab client in the 1970s and 1980s, came up with a strategically more important payoff--Soviet access to its Mediterranean port of Tartus.

The high point of Soviet sway in the region came in the mid-1950s, when the Kremlin embraced Egypt's magnetic pan-Arabist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His anti-colonialist line fit hand-in-glove with Soviet policy, and Moscow struck its first arms deal with Cairo in 1955. A year later, the Soviets widened their influence along the Nile, rebuilding the Egyptian military after its losses in the Suez Crisis, when Nasser's nationalization of the strategic canal gave Britain, France and Israel the excuse they needed to attempt to crush his movement.

Then, in a brilliant public relations gambit, Moscow stepped in to build the Aswan High Dam when Washington balked at the expense. Damming the Nile, an action symbolizing progress and socialist power to the Arab masses, made the Soviet Union a model for the secular regimes that would take power in Syria and Iraq and an inspiration to more radical elements like gun-happy rulers in South Yemen and various militant Palestinian groups.

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