By Pavel Stroilov | 27 July 2011
Syria sought Soviet help to build an anti-Israel alliance with Iran despite its long conflict with Iraq.
Newly uncovered diplomatic documents from a Soviet archive show how Syria’s then president, the late Hafez Assad, tried to build the united front despite being a long-standing ally of Iraq. Soviet-Iranian relations also were cold for most of the 1980’s while Iran was engaged in the prolonged and bloody war with USSR-backed Iraq.
Other documents from the archive reveal how Iran invited the USSR to replace communism with Islam.
A transcript of a meeting in 1988 between Assad and the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, shows the Syrian leader’s frustration with Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s then president.
“[The Iranians] only want to get Saddam because the Iranian people cannot co-exist with Saddam”
– Hafez Assad speaking to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988
Assad is recorded as saying: “The war between Iran and Iraq is painful; it creates serious problems. But Saddam Hussein bears responsibility for it. I have said so both to the Soviet comrades and to Saddam himself.”
“The rapprochement of Iraq and Syria would contradict the interests of the US and Israel. The actions of Saddam Hussein confirm that he took upon himself some commitments to these countries. When I met Saddam under the mediation of King Hussein, he put forward only one condition for improving relations with us: our statement condemning Iran.
“That would mean pushing Iran towards rapprochement with the US and Israel. This, of course, would not be in the interests of the progressive forces. The fanatical nationalists in Iran would use it to say that all Arabs are against them despite Iran’s support of Palestine, and the support of Arabs in conflict with Israel; so it is better to co-operate with Tel Aviv. But this would be against the interests of the Soviet Union.”
Gorbachev: “You did everything right. The main thing is to follow a principled course. If you start deviating from it, you may get confused.”
Assad: “I suggested that Saddam should reach an agreement with Syria for Syria to support Iraq with all its forces, and vice versa. Previously, we were talking about the unity of two countries. I suggested establishing political co-operation. If Iran sees that Iraq and Syria have a common position and that we can do a lot to counter America and Israel, this could trigger a positive response in Iran.
“But Saddam refused. The only thing he wants is for Syria to take an anti-Iranian stance. The decision about the Iran-Iraq war was Americans’. The decision to break off relations with Syria is also the decision of the US.
“I had a secret meeting with Saddam in Amman [capital of Jordan]. Of course, such a meeting should have taken place in Moscow, and that was what we proposed. However, he refused on the basis of security concerns. I think that was just an excuse and the real reason was different.
“Our first meeting in Amman airport lasted 14 hours. Saddam wanted just one thing: our condemnation of Iran. He did not want to talk about anything else, neither about political nor economic co-operation.
“We don’t think that Iran will swallow Iraq. The Iranians do not want that. They only want to get Saddam because the Iranian people cannot co-exist with Saddam.”
Assad and Gorbachev met in a Moscow hospital, where the Syrian president secretly went for medical treatment. The Iran-Iraq war ran from 1980 until 1988, ending a few months after that meeting.
The transcript shows that Moscow supported Assad’s efforts to forge an alliance with Iran. Gorbachev is recorded as saying: “We appreciate the ‘co-ordination’ we have with Iran, and your approach towards Iran’s issues, which combines consistency with flexibility. You need to be careful when dealing with Iran, you need to be able to manoeuvre. We want neighbourly and friendly relations with Iran. We have deep common interests.
“The Americans declare that Islamic fundamentalists should be removed. We say that this is an internal matter for the Iranian people.
“We fear that they might turn to the Americans: there are various movements in Iran. We are going to act with self-control and use a balanced approach. We shall also show firmness from time to time.”
Assad: “If the current regime falls, the US will launch its plan of creating an Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey block, which will be directed against the USSR and the progressive forces of the Middle and Near East. After that, they could easily dominate the whole region, including the Persian Gulf, Iraq, etc. That’s why they want to bring to power the Afghan counter-revolutionaries.
“When [the Americans] speak of Iran, they use the terms ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. Those they call ‘moderate’ have links to the US.”
Assad: “The ‘extremists’ in Iran are against America. I have a friend, who is an Iranian politician. He is sympathetic to Syria, but his views are pro-Western. He hates those who are fuelled by religion and says that he would do anything to remove them. However, he also candidly admits that the real revolutionaries in Iran are the sheikhs.”
The documents show that the Soviets saw Syrian-Iranian relations as a way of advancing the USSR’s influence in Iran, especially after Ayatollah Khomeini was no longer Iran’s spiritual leader.
In a memo to Gorbachev, written some months before the hospital meeting between the two leaders, Anatoly Chernyaev, the Soviet president’s foreign policy adviser, wrote: “Of course, Assad is playing his own game with us, although he believes he is right. The reason we need him now is not even the Middle East (he would not help us to convene a [peace] conference and would be the last to join it), but Iran after Khomeini (the Syrians have strongly penetrated the various strata of the Iranian society).”
Khomeini would die in the year following the hospital meeting between Assad and Gorbachev. Other diplomatic documents from the archive show how Soviet-Iranian relations became close during the USSR’s final years.