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US sought Soviet help for Middle East problems

US president George Bush senior invited the Soviet Union to work with America to tackle tensions in the Middle East. This marked a reversal of US policy, Bush told his Soviet opposite number, Mikhail Gorbachev, during talks about a peace plan proposed to Saddam Hussein to avert the war with Iraq over Kuwait.

The disclosure is contained in the secret transcript of the meeting between Bush and Gorbachev at a summit in Helsinki in September 1990.

Bush is recorded as beginning the meeting by saying: “Now, to show you all my cards, I wish to say the following. For many years, during the Cold War, the United States policy consisted of preventing the Soviet Union from playing any role in the Middle East.

Saddam Hussein should not be driven into a corner

Mikhail Gorbachev speaking to George Bush senior in 1990

“Naturally, the Soviet Union disagreed with that line; was displeased with the US attitude.

“Even though I am sure that it would be a great victory for Saddam if he managed to add the issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the crisis caused by his aggression, I want to assure you that the old concept, the old US attitude towards the Soviet Union’s involvement in the Middle Eastern affairs, has changed.

“The new order, which, I hope, might be established after all these troubles, implies that both the United States and the Soviet Union will make more positive, common efforts to resolve not only this particular problem, but also other problems of the Middle East.”

Bush also said that if Gorbachev were to send Soviet troops to the Gulf to join America and its allies, who were preparing to attack Iraq: “The United States would welcome this.”

However, Gorbachev privately and publicly strongly opposed the idea of military action to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

He told Bush that his advisors were warning him that a military attack would antagonise the Arab world, split the anti-Saddam coalition, and cause massive casualties and financial losses running to “trillions of dollars”.

“All our experts think Saddam Hussein should not be driven into a corner,” he said.

According to Russia’s former deputy foreign minister, Alexander Belonogov, however, Gorbachev was exaggerating the view of Soviet advisors about the threat. In a book published in Russia in 2001, he said: “I was surprised that [Gorbachev] resorted to ‘horror stories’ of this kind, so reminiscent of the then Iraqi propaganda.”

Gorbachev outlined to Bush his plan to seek a peace deal with Saddam.

Pavel Stroilov is a Russian journalist and political exile living in London, and author of ‘Behind the Desert Storm. Additional reporting by Alanah Eriksen.

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