24. Telegram From the Embassy in the United Arab Republic to the Department of State1
1994. Cane from Talbot. Nearly half my two hour conversation with Nasser Tuesday evening2 was devoted to arms questions. I told him President Johnson had carefully reviewed earlier communications between him and President Kennedy, along with reports of McCloy’s talks with him. McCloy had emphasized US concerned with area stability and diversion of resources into arms race. President Johnson was equally anxious that in any way possible US shall help nations in this area to curb arms race of weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons. McCloy and he had had candid talk on missiles and nuclear proliferation, and, expressing President Johnson’s deep concern, I hoped we could discuss in all seriousness problem as it now appeared. Nasser agreed and asked me to proceed.[Page 53]
I said it seemed to us that accelerated Near East arms race was not in interests of either UAR or Israel. In particular, UAR development of surface-to-surface missiles was having clearly unsettling effect. It was seen by Israel and by other nations including US as new step in arms race. We assumed that in view their mutual distrust, UAR and Israel could not realistically agree now to reduce existing conventional arms. However, decisions made now about this new stage could influence course of arms race for years to come. We hoped he could consider this matter very seriously.
I continued that we and other nations have been, and are, under constant Israeli pressure to obtain weapons which in Israel’s view needed to correct imbalances deriving from UAR acquisition of Soviet arms or development of its own weapons. Our ability to curb Israeli appetites particularly difficult where obvious imbalances occur. Any dangerous imbalance between two countries merely heightens the temptation for pre-emptive attacks.
We have followed very closely, I said, Israel’s progress in nuclear field. I could say with full authority that at this time we have no evidence of Israeli production of nuclear weapons. However, it would be possible for Israel to acquire such capability in future. Nasser would recall how strongly President Kennedy had stood against nuclear proliferation and he could be certain that President Johnson just as firmly opposed to that dangerous course.
Meanwhile, it apparent that missile race picking up steam. In our people’s judgment, UAR surface-to-surface missiles—of type described by Nasser to McCloy as improved V2’s—might be considerable psychological threat but would not have great military importance so long as numbers were kept low. This was London’s experience under V2 attack in World War II. However, Israel is uncertain and fearful of UAR missile plans and our intelligence indicates Israelis taking steps to redress situation. If numbers of missiles kept low on both sides, problem might be largely psychological. However, should UAR develop large missile force and Israel follow suit two forces would obviously be selfdefeating, as we assume Nasser would recognize. Problem particularly acute because missilery, as we have reason to know, excessively costly and yet we suppose that if competition really got going at this level both UAR and Israel would find means to build up missile force.
I noted recent USG experiences with USSR. Although no major arms control agreements have been reached, US and USSR have quietly sought to limit further increases in military budget. In future they might find ways even to reduce military budgets. Obviously no formal agreement involved here, but mutual restraint brought this result. Also, Nasser would recall that US and USSR had concurred in prohibition of nuclear weapons in Outer Space. Both countries could have orbited these weapons [Page 54] but neither stood to gain by such action. These restraints by “mutual example” might, we felt, be useful guides for UAR and Israel.
What we were seeking, I said, are ways of reducing chances of chain reaction which might be started by either Israel or UAR but could not be stopped by them and would be likely to draw in other countries including major powers, with consequences Nasser could readily perceive. Being much concerned at such possibilities, we would like to suggest to him, for his consideration and any response he might wish to make, several alternatives.
One possibility would be a tacit understanding on limitation of missiles. Some unobtrusive understanding on verification would of course be better way to deal with possible development of surface-to-surface missiles and other sophisticated weapons. However, recalling what Nasser had said to McCloy on this subject, we hope he would at least be willing to explore possible mutual restraint. We see not only compelling military reasons but very strong economic reasons for this course in both countries. We would welcome an indication by Nasser of willingness to limit numbers of UAR missiles.
Secondly, we hope Nasser has had opportunity to consider advantages to UAR of accepting IAEA safeguards for future reactors. We are not asking Nasser to change current UAR practice. Safeguards would apply only to any larger reactor it might build in future. Nasser knew that India has agreed to principle of IAEA inspection of Tarapur. It seems to us that for Nasser to take similar step would be no derogation of sovereignty, as he had suggested to McCloy, but rather a highly responsible use of sovereignty to reinforce system of safeguards which if generally adopted could benefit whole of mankind. Nasser’s agreement in principle would not only be powerful action in support of IAEA principles, but it would also give other nations, including U.S., sturdy leverage to apply to current Israeli reluctance to place its Dimona reactor under IAEA. Should Israel resist these safeguards after their acceptance by Nasser, U.S. would have basis for questioning Israeli nuclear policy.
As another suggestion I recalled the draft letter that President Kennedy had promised [proposed] last October3 and said President Johnson would welcome a letter from President Nasser stating UAR has no intention of developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. In our opinion public exchange of this sort would be statesmanlike advance.
Finally, President Nasser had mentioned to McCloy possibility of collective agreements. We do not know exactly what he had in mind, [Page 55] but we have continued working at nuclear weapons problem on broader basis in Geneva. It has occurred to us that UAR might helpfully state its own position in that forum on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
If Nasser had any other ideas about how to proceed, I said we would be very glad to hear of them as well. In conclusion, I expressed hope I had successfully conveyed President Johnson’s deep concern over problems of missile escalation of possible nuclear weapons development. We found it difficult to see how entry into new and costly phases of arms race could serve UAR’s desire to strengthen its own independent role in world, for dangers of sophisticated weaponry so great that any hostilities involving them could very well draw in large powers seeking restrict any aggression. As one who understands these problems well, Nasser, we hope, can see how much better it would be if ways could be found to exercise positive restraints in field of missiles and other sophisticated weaponry.
With apologies for length of my presentation, I invited Nasser comment as he might desire. He started by observing that once again heart of problem between US and UAR was Israel. It seemed always this way, he said. He thought his position had been made clear in his talks with McCloy and Ambassador Badeau. The UAR had to maintain its defenses. It did not trust Israel. It had been told before that Israel might agree to certain actions, but had been fooled. In 1955 the US had talked about getting some balance between Israel’s forces and all Arab forces, but Israel had moved into Sinai and suddenly fallen upon UAR units there. The first news he and his officers had heard of this was conveyed by an Israeli broadcast. None of them could forget those days of 1956. There was no point, therefore, in discussing limitation of arms, because UAR and all Arabs just cannot trust Israel.
I pointed out we not talking about cutting back existing weapons. We understand lack of trust which prevents effective discussions directed toward limiting existing arms. Our central concern is for limitation of missiles and other sophisticated weapons yet to become operational.
Nasser said UAR had gone into missile program in 1960 to develop deterrent against growing Israeli strength. He had also started building aircraft then. He felt UAR must develop its own aircraft and missiles because at that time Soviets, with whom UAR had some disputes, was refusing provide spare parts and otherwise making clear they not completely trustworthy source of arms. UAR had sought arms elsewhere, including US, without success; therefore he felt UAR had no choice but to develop its own planes and missiles.
He could not tell me about numbers of missiles, Nasser said, because UAR has no plan yet. He is not thinking now in terms [Page 56] of numbers. His first job is to increase quality of their performance. So far they have not been very accurate, and inaccurate missiles aimed at Israel might hit Jerusalem or Amman.
I observed that Israelis are disturbed because they seem to think UAR preparing to produce missiles in the hundreds. I said if it were matter of only small number, just possible Israelis also might limit themselves to small number. Could Nasser give me idea of range of UAR planning? He regretted that he could not, for reason just stated.
He observed I had said missiles might have psychological impact but not much military effect in small numbers. As military man he agreed with this. With conventional warheads missiles could deliver only a ton or so of explosives. Aircraft might be more effective. But now of course Israel getting Hawks from US, so aircraft alone no longer much deterrent. I pointed out Hawk purely defensive and would not protect Israeli forces should they attack outside Israeli borders. He turned that aside by commenting that UAR has not also obtained SAM’s, from Soviets. These are extremely expensive, and UAR could not hope to cover whole country or even all important spots, as could Israel with US-purchased SAM’s. Indeed, UAR vulnerable because unlike US it does not have full radar coverage of frontiers. These deficiencies increase UAR need for deterrent. I argued SSM’s of type he described not really deterrent especially as their development would almost certainly cause Israelis to develop or acquire their own SSM’s, which could be quite sophisticated. Returning to question of numbers of SSM’s contemplated by UAR, I again got no answer.
Nuclear weapons are another matter, Nasser said, as he had told McCloy and Ambassador Badeau. UAR has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. In any case UAR lacks necessary resources; for example, it has no source of plutonium, as does Israel.
Nasser also observed that strategic nuclear weapons—“I know only of them, I don’t know about tactical nuclear weapons”—could probably not be used against Israel anyway because it is such small country. As it only 1520 kilometers wide at some points, strategic nuclear bomb might easily spread destruction partly in Arab lands outside Israel. He would consider what to say about not intending to develop or secure nuclear weapons. Perhaps he could state this in a letter to President Johnson, as we had suggested. They had looked at Kennedy draft letter and had found some difficulties in it, but they could consider matter again and see if such a letter could be sent.
As to IAEA safeguards, he thought it might be possible for UAR to accept these at appropriate time. UAR is now seeking to construct large nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. Ambassador Badeau asked whether arrangements for electrical power from Aswan Dam would not be adequate for some time to come. Nasser said point is UAR feels [Page 57] must get into nuclear age in good time. It was late getting into industrial revolution and into electrical age. It does not want to be late again even though nuclear power may cost more than other forms. Perhaps at time of arranging for new reactor UAR could announce its acceptance of IAEA safeguards. He thought this might be possible. I asked him about timing, explaining this was of interest since question of Israeli action on IAEA safeguards for its larger reactor was already at hand. He said he did not know when UAR would reach this stage. He left me with impression, however, that he got the point.
I went after him again on numbers of missiles as a basis for some tacit understanding on limitation of numbers, with the same negative results as before. As conversation was beginning to get repetitive, I dropped it at that point.
Comment: Ambassador and I believe there may be some significance in Nasser’s indication he may be prepared write letter to President stating UAR intention not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. This was clearest indication we got that he did not consider Cane exercise necessarily closed with President Kennedy’s death. We also feel his willingness talk about IAEA safeguards for future reactors may reflect recognition that Tarapur pattern may now be adopted by nations giving assistance for building reactors in developing countries. My failure to budge him on missiles does not necessarily signify UAR yet committed to produce large numbers, Ambassador and I feel. Assuming UAR is in fact still facing serious technical problems in missile development, Nasser may not wish expose his hand until situation clear. Alternatively, he may not wish to give up this bargaining counter at this stage in exercises.
I would like to feel that net result is some give on IAEA safeguards and possible acceptance of idea of committing himself in letter to President on non-proliferation. However, his repeated references to Israel arms suggests his willingness proceed along these lines could be withheld if he comes to believe US changing its restraint on arms provided Israel.
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 7 US/McCLOY. Top Secret; Exdis. Received at 5:04 p.m.↩
- See Document 25.↩
- For text of Kennedy’s proposed draft letter, transmitted to Cairo on September 12, 1963, and given to Nasser by Badeau on October 5, and Nasser’s reaction, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Documents 324 and 325.↩