A Tale of Two Sadats

May 21, 2015

4 min read

With varying degrees of vehemence, the United States’ Middle East allies all oppose the budding U.S.-Iranian détente. At the head of the pack, of course, is Israel, followed closely by Saudi Arabia. But when the calendar strikes June 30, the Pickett’s Charge will come to an end and they will have to reluctantly pivot from accord prevention to accord mitigation. As one senior Gulf official said, “We’re not going to do a Netanyahu. We are not wasting time confronting that agreement. . . . Instead we are bracing ourselves for the post-agreement world.” In such a world, Israel could decide to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, and Saudi Arabia could decide to acquire its own bomb, but both states, cognizant of how costly these actions might be, will likely consider other options first.

And there, they have a model to look to. Four decades ago, Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat faced a similar state of affairs. Twice, he took bold action to blunt the fallout of U.S.-Soviet détente. In 1973, Sadat, feeling abandoned by Moscow, plunged the Middle East into regional war, leading to a permanent rise in global oil prices and putting the United States on nuclear alert. In 1977, Sadat, this time distressed by U.S. actions, sidestepped a U.S.-Soviet process to forge a peace agreement with Israel, ending regional Arab-Israeli wars. In both cases, it was not détente itself but Sadat’s reactions that shaped the region. The tale of the two Sadats crystallizes the options before the United States’ allies today.


By the time Sadat assumed power in late September 1970, Egypt had become a Soviet protectorate in all but name. In order to prevent a sequel of Egypt’s devastating defeat at Israel’s hands in 1967, the Soviet Union deployed tens of thousands of military advisers to Egypt. Soviet antiaircraft missile batteries and fighter jets defended Egyptian skies; a few times, they even got tangled in dangerous dogfights with Israeli planes. It wasn’t until May 1971, however, that Egypt and the Soviet Union signed their first official alliance treaty, more than 15 years after Cairo first tethered itself to the Kremlin.

The optics of the treaty were misleading, however, since Egyptian and Soviet interests were already slowly diverging. Moscow desperately needed to rebuild its prestige, which had been deeply damaged by its proxies’ losses, but it was wary of emboldening Egypt to seek a fight it could not win. It was willing to help Egypt forestall another Israeli assault, but it refused to supply it with the advanced weaponry it would need to have a second go at the Israelis. Egypt, not surprisingly, quietly chafed under these constraints.

U.S.-Soviet détente changed everything. At the May 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow, the two superpowers issued a joint communiqué that not only committed the Soviets to supporting a “peaceful settlement” in the Middle East but also noted that the “achievement of such a settlement would open prospects for the normalization of the Middle East situation and would permit, in particular, consideration of further steps to bring about a military relaxation in that area.” Moscow would douse rather than enflame the Arab-Israeli conflict and, to that end, would provide no further game-changing arms.

For Cairo, détente was a betrayal. After years of goosing Egypt and the country’s policy of military confrontation with the Israelis, the Soviets now reversed course and committed themselves to restraint, freezing the status quo. A “no peace, no war” situation had become ideal for Moscow, but with Israeli forces parked on the Suez Canal, it was intolerable for Egypt. With few options at his disposal, though, Sadat continued to send supportive signals to his Soviet patron as he tried to figure out how to loosen the Kremlin’s vise.

That July, Sadat abruptly and unceremoniously expelled the 15,000 Soviet advisers in Egypt. Although Moscow was incensed by the move, it sought to contain the potential damage and continued to provide military support. Its navy was still using Egyptian bases, and it delivered more arms to Egypt in the first six months of 1973 than in the previous two years combined. The following October, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War, a surprise assault on Israel. Once again, Moscow had no choice but to back its proxy lest it publicly signal its loss of control. Days into the war, the Soviets began a massive naval and aerial resupply operation. Soviet troops were even allowed to control weapons on Egyptian soil.

The war, despite its limited nature, brought the region to the brink of chaos and the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. In the face of heavy losses on both fronts, Israel’s cabinet debated using its nuclear option. In response to the U.S. military resupply of Israeli forces, OPEC instituted an oil embargo, resulting in a permanent rise in oil prices and throwing the U.S. economy into a 16-month recession. Things nearly got even worse: after the Israelis recovered from their initial shock and began reversing Egyptian gains, Moscow threatened unilateral military measures, prompting the United States to go to DEFCON 3 and put its nuclear forces on worldwide alert.

Despite both losing the war and nearly sparking a regional conflagration, Sadat had successfully mitigated the worst consequences (for him) of détente. He parlayed his limited victory into a budding strategic relationship with the United States. Soon after the war, Egypt and the United States reestablished diplomatic relations, which had been severed in 1967. Egyptian forces were granted a permanent presence on the east side of the canal owing to a partial Israeli withdrawal, and the United States started sending the country significant economic aid. Moscow’s détente gamble had backfired. Not only was the Soviet Union backed into its most acute superpower confrontation in the Middle East but, in the process, it had lost Egypt. Its position in the Middle East never recovered.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Foreign Affairs

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