156. Memorandum of Conversation1
- US/UK Middle East Talks—Washington—September 13, 1968
- Sir Denis Allen, Foreign Office
- E. Tomkins, Minister, UK Embassy
- Michael Wilford, Counselor, UK Embassy
- Alan Urwick, First Secretary, UK Embassy
- Mr. Battle, Assistant Secretary, NEA
- Mr. Rockwell, Deputy Assistant Secretary, NEA
- Mr. Brewer, Country Director, NEA/ARP
- Mr. Gatch, NEA/ARP
1. Persian Gulf: Saudi/Iranian/Kuwaiti Relations; the Bahrain Question
Sir Denis Allen said the UK aim was to try and steer things towards stability on a local basis in the Persian Gulf while the UK still has a military presence there. Fufilling this aim is difficult because of local Arab rivalries and because of the Iranian objection to the Federation of Arab Amirates (FAA) including Bahrain. Immediately after the UK announced its intentions to withdraw, these rivalries intensified as the parties concerned came to the UK for assistance in getting future arrangements worked out in the Gulf, of course on terms favorable to their particular interests. The UK had worked hard for six months behind the scenes, urging the need for compromise. The UK could not of course please everyone, but there had been some slight success, particularly in recent weeks when hopeful progress had been made. The countries concerned seemed to be trying to get together. Admittedly the Iranians were not giving very much, as reflected in talks UK Ambassador Wright has had with the Shah, but there were encouraging signs. After the initial meeting of the FAA, the Iranians blamed the “imperialists”—i.e. the British, for the formation of the FAA. They got this on record in a more or less pro forma way, and then went to work building bridges with individual Trucial States. They had worked on Rashid of Dubai, had received the Rulers of Ras al-Khaimah and Fujaira in Tehran, the Ruler of Sharja was also going, Zayyid of Abu Dhabi was sending a son to school in Iran, etc. The UK believes Iran is trying to be constructive [Page 314] as the dominant power in the area in establishing these direct contacts.
The Iranians have told the British it would be easier if the UK could hold up the formation of the FAA until after some of the area problems are worked out, notably Bahrain. The Saudis, on the other hand, want the UK to press ahead with the formation of the FAA, believing that they would then find it easier to talk to the Iranians. Sir Denis noted, however, that the Saudis have been very helpful lately, for example in the median line negotiations. It appears to the UK that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are being careful not to upset the plans for the Shah’s meeting with Faisal in November. He added that the Kuwaitis also have been helpful recently, particularly in connection with the FAA July meeting. Foreign Minister Sabah al-Ahmad had encouraged the participating states to work constructively.
All in all, the British felt there has been a great deal of movement in the right direction since January. We must not forget, however, that the Bahrain issue is still unsolved. The UK thinks the Shah is perplexed and views Bahrain as a public relations problem. He wants to get it out of the way. This was why he suggested the possibility of a plebiscite. The UK is reluctant to get caught in the middle, since the Ruler of Bahrain could not contemplate a plebiscite. Arab rulers traditionally do not lay matters of this nature before their peoples. Further, the Ruler of Bahrain fears that a plebiscite would stir up radical Arab elements and would make the small Iranian minority in Bahrain uneasy. The UK had nonetheless discussed the idea of a plebiscite with the Ruler, but had received the expected negative reaction. Sir Denis said that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain had all approached the UK unilaterally seeking to find a solution to the Bahrain issue. Kuwait may prove to be helpful. Sir Denis asserted that the Iranians actually have moved a good way, since Tehran had recently muted its public attacks on the FAA and Bahrain.
Mr. Battle said that we and the UK obviously shared the assessment that the countries of the Gulf region must solve their own problems. We also both believed the key to the overall problem is a good relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, between Iran on the one hand and Kuwait and the smaller states on the other. We have been encouraged by the improvement in the situation since the low point of the cancellation of the Shah’s visit to Saudi Arabia last February. We see a new sense of common purpose. We think it very important that the Shah’s visit to Saudi Arabia be successful.2 We also [Page 315] are pleased with the apparent settlement of the median line question.3 We must all remember however that the situation is fragile, and could easily be upset by a wrong word or a wrong move. Both the US and the UK must continue to work diligently and quietly behind the scene.
Regarding the FAA, Mr. Battle said we have tried to convince the Iranians that it is not a UK plot. We sense that the Iranians are a little more relaxed on this issue.
Mr. Rockwell said he did not see too much comfort in the situation, since the Iranians still want the British to solve all the problems “150%” in Iran’s favor. Since this obviously will not suit the Arab side, had the UK any new plans. How did the UK see it all coming out?
Sir Denis said the British really could not foresee the end at this stage. They are encouraging contacts among all the parties concerned and are trying to make them think about the problems facing them. Mr. Battle said we find it encouraging that all of the parties are talking to the UK.
Sir Denis said for the moment the UK is sitting back until after the Shah’s visit with Faisal. He agreed that the situation is delicate and easy to upset. Mr. Rockwell wondered whether the Iranians weren’t having direct contacts with the Trucial rulers for the purpose of upsetting the FAA. Allen said this was a possibility, but the UK had no indication they are working on the rulers this way. The UK had argued with Iran that the FAA would provide a way to close out the Bahrain claim gracefully, since Bahrain would be submerged in the greater whole. The Iranians had countered by saying because of Bahrain’s possible inclusion in the FAA, Iran came into conflict with the other eight states with whom they want good relations and whom they would like to see united. Sir Denis said the UK had no evidence one way or another whether the Iranians were sincere when they said this.
Mr. Rockwell said it could be argued that the Iranians were trying to gain control over various of the rulers. Mr. Brewer noted that Iran had moved rapidly after the announcement of the UK withdrawal and had developed much knowledge and many contacts in the Trucial area which they had not had before. They now have a greater capability to exploit differences. Iran seems more relaxed on the surface about the FAA now, perhaps because they believe they can make it not work if they choose. Mr. Brewer also said that if Bahrain were excluded from [Page 316] the FAA the present lower Gulf balance would be upset and an 8-member FAA would be less likely to work. The problem is still very much before us. Sir Denis said there is no doubt of the hazards. He recognized that there are small differences that can be exploited by Iran. That is why it is important to bring the area states together on common ground.
Mr. Rockwell asked whether the UK saw any possibility of progress on Bahrain coming out of the Shah-Faisal talks. Sir Denis said that the UK did not expect any dramatic solution. A long process is involved and it is difficult to see too far ahead. Mr. Battle said we had no particular solution to suggest, but believed that if situation deteriorates everyone will look to the UK to save it. We cannot relax and perhaps new ideas should be “pumped in”. We will do our best to help but have no plan or certain solutions. We will continue to work behind the scenes but want the UK to retain as much influence as possible for as long as possible.
Mr. Brewer noted that there was a negative aspect in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran as far as the FAA is concerned—i.e. when the FAA showed some signs of progress this soured Iranian/Saudi relations. In this connection, keeping the importance of the Shah-Faisal meeting in mind, we had been encouraged by several unconfirmed reports that the FAA meeting scheduled for October might be postponed until after the Shah’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
Sir Denis said the UK was conscious of the desirability of postponing the October meeting. The FAA countries themselves are becoming more aware of the need to take Iranian interests into account. While they might decide on their own it would be a good idea to postpone, the UK did not want to press the rulers at this point.
Sir Denis said the obvious question is—will it work? So far it is a paper structure and it might very well be that within the structure each ruler will go his own way. It may also be that all efforts will break down and there will not be any FAA.
Mr. Battle said there will have to be a lot of work done over a long period of time just to set the organization in the right direction—let alone solving the problems of sovereignty, judicial systems etc. for each state.
Sir Denis said the process of delay poses problems for the UK in connection with renegotiating treaties with the individual rulers—it obviously would be better to deal with one nation, but if the formation of the FAA took too long the UK would have to deal unilaterally. The UK has the same problem in the defense field. The British are keen that the Trucial Oman Scouts be maintained. They feel that the TOS is [Page 317] the right organization for the security of the FAA if the FAA is sufficiently well established to direct the TOS. The UK is raising the pay of the TOS and plans to continuing seconding UK officers to it until 1971, and perhaps afterwards. Officers could also be made available by private contract. However the UK is coming up against individual demands from Dubai and Abu Dhabi which are attempting to stake out private ground for themselves by strengthening their own security forces—possibly in the hope of dominating the FAA or possibly foreseeing that the FAA will not work. Zayyid is ahead in this game because he has had more resources. The British are trying to restrain his demands. Rashid wants to expand the Dubai Defense Force. The British are trying to discourage him by suggesting that an additional TOS be stationed in Dubai. This may not satisfy him. Even if the British have to expand the DDF, they hope eventually that it and the TOS would be made available to the FAA. The problem is that the rulers seem to have a split-minded approach—they are working on forming the FAA but at the same time are working individually to strengthen their own particular states.
Sir Denis noted that the UK has done a great deal in the past to improve the security situation in the area by building up police and counter-intelligence forces in the various states. The UK has had to be careful to avoid overdoing this and thus accentuating rivalries.
Mr. Battle said he was glad the UK and not the US had the responsibility, and attendant problems, of military assistance in the area. Sir Denis said it was important that the defense efforts were geared into the FAA.
Meanwhile, progress is being made in turning over local administrative institutions. Retrocession is proceeding well, particularly in Bahrain. This will go on even if the FAA does not succeed. The UK felt it still had a bit of time. Mr. Battle agreed but said if time dragged on until 1971 without an FAA or alternate arrangements for stability, our mutual interests would suffer.
Sir Denis pointed out that the UK intends to maintain a position in the Gulf, except for defense and special treaty arrangements. The UK will be prepared to consider aid, technical assistance or military missions in the same way it is doing with Kuwait. Mr. Battle stressed that the US wanted the UK there in all fields. The UK has a big stake in the Gulf area.
3. Miscellaneous Gulf Matters
(a) Kuwait Defense
Sir Denis said the UK was grateful that the US continues to tell Kuwait that the UK should be its principal source of military supplies. He wanted to report the following results of the recent UK Military Team visit to Kuwait. The team had recommended: [Page 318]
- An integrated air defense system with two squadron of Lightnings
- Expansion to two Hawker Hunter squadrons
- Slight expansion of the army, including increased armor
- Establishment of a small navy. Its nucleus would be six fast patrol boats with surface-to-surface missiles
- Higher priority on training
- Establishment of a better administrative system for the Kuwait armed forces.
Sir Denis said all of these recommendations had been accepted by the Kuwaitis, except that the Kuwaitis were still considering the addition of some strike aircraft to the Kuwait Air Force. They had Mirage-5’s in mind. The UK was attempting to discourage them but the issue was still unresolved. Mr. Rockwell noted that if Kuwait and Iraq got patrol craft with surface-to-surface missiles this would stir up the Iranians.
(b) Abu Dhabi-Dubai
Mr. Brewer asked whether the initial Abu Dhabi-Dubai federation was legally dead, since its status would have relevance for the two off-shore oil concessions involved. Sir Denis said he believed it was moribund and indicated that any change in oil concession boundaries was most unlikely.
Mr. Brewer asked whether HMG might be willing to extend financial assistance to the TOS after 1971. Sir Denis did not rule out the possibility, but said the UK hoped the FAA would finance it. He could not give a categorical answer, however. The UK was approaching Bahrain in the same spirit—i.e. assisting Bahrain now with the National Guard and the airport in the expectation that Bahrain would provide the finances after the UK military withdrawal.
Mr. Brewer asked how the UK military forces on Bahrain would be affected by the retrocession process. Sir Denis said they would be the last to be affected and that the UK would really maintain jurisdiction under the current status of forces agreement until the final withdrawal. Mr. Brewer noted that this would be helpful to us in connection with MIDEASTFOR.
Mr. Battle said we have no present plans to augment or decrease MIDEASTFOR. Additionally we have no plans to move MIDEASTFOR from Bahrain after the British military withdrawal, although we would have to examine alternate bases for MIDEASTFOR on a contingency basis.[Page 319]
Sir Denis said he appreciated this information. The UK does have a problem in planning the dismantling of its own facilities. In effect the UK would like to give us first refusal of what is there. The sooner the UK could learn what we needed the more orderly the planning could be. Mr. Rockwell asked whether we might have a list of what was available. Mr. Wilford said he believed “everything was for sale”, since the UK will not be retaining any military force on Bahrain.
Mr. Battle said the studies and the decisions regarding MIDEASTFOR would be made here in Washington and we would need precise information. Sir Denis said it would be appropriate to use the US Embassy-Foreign Office-Ministry of Defense channel in London. Mr. Battle agreed and said that we would respond to the British when we had a clearer idea of what MIDEASTFOR might require.
5. US Diplomatic Representation in the Gulf Area
Mr. Battle said we have no intention at the moment of opening an office in the area pending the inauguration of the FAA and a determination of where its capital will be. We are, however, definitely interested in representation there. The administrative processes for setting up a new office take time and we want to be ready to move when the occasion arises. We would like the UK views on this concept.
Sir Denis said it was an awkward situation. The US was really the victim of the delay surrounding the FAA. The UK was relieved to hear that the US is not immediately planning to open an office, since it would be difficult to decide where to put it. A decision now in favor of Abu Dhabi, Dubai or wherever would inevitably lead to an intensification of local rivalries. It would also probably lead to demands by the UAR to be allowed to open an office. The UK simply believes it would be premature for the US to go ahead now.
Mr. Battle, in accepting this judgment, wanted the British to bear our interest in mind.
Sir Denis then turned to the possibility of the US opening an office in Muscat. The UK would welcome this. Mr. Brewer noted that we had had an office in Muscat for many years, but that at present we were not in a position to reopen the post. This situation would, however, change as oil production and income grows and more Americans go there. It is not unlikely that in the next few years we will want to re-open an office, particularly should the Sultan decide to spend more time at the capital. However, Muscat does not have the same priority with us as has the FAA. In this connection, Mr. Brewer wondered if the UK position now is that the UK has no objection to the US opening an office as soon as it is clear where the capital of the FAA will be.
Sir Denis said this is the UK position in principle, but the British would want to look at the position again when the capital is determined. [Page 320] For example, if the FAA chose Bahrain, this might pose serious problems. Mr. Battle said we appreciated the delicacy of the situation. We want to coordinate fully with the UK. We find these present discussions on the subject useful and look forward to further discussions as the situation evolves. Sir Denis said the UK reluctance was prompted by expediency rather than principle.
Mr. Brewer recalled the history of Kuwait’s entrance into the UN—i.e. the Soviets withdrew their veto on the understanding that they would be permitted to open a mission in Kuwait. Mr. Brewer wondered whether the Soviets might use the same tactics at such time as the FAA might apply for UN membership. Sir Denis said the UK had not done much speculation on this point. His immediate reaction was that in the beginning it might be better for the FAA to join a few specialized UN agencies rather than seek full membership. He had no doubt that if the FAA achieved UN membership status the Soviets would want to establish relations.
Mr. Battle said Soviet interest in the area was clear. Sir Denis agreed, and said the Soviets at the moment appeared to be watching and waiting, in much the same way as the UAR is. The UK had lately noted very little in the way of adverse propaganda or subversive efforts from either the Soviets or the UAR.
Mr. Battle asked how the UK assessed the situation. Allen said the question in Iraq now, as usual, is the possibility of survival of the present regime. The UK impression is that the regime’s base is narrower than previous ones. Takriti and Ammash seem to be the strong men. The UK Embassy has had routine contacts with the new regime. The Embassy judges the regime as trying to establish an image of respectability, but doubts that it has wide popularity. The best that can be said about it is that it is sort of a middle, moderate Ba’ath regime, not as bad as the Syrian one.
According to Sir Denis, the Iraqis are judging all countries by their stand on the Palestine problem. This puts the Soviets, the Communist Chinese and, just barely, the French in the Iraq plus column. The UK of course doesn’t pass as a friend, but there has been no extreme denunciation of the UK in Iraq. To the contrary there have been some hopeful signs. The Iraqi boycott on UK goods has been lifted and UK-Iraqi commerce is returning to normal. The British Council probably will reopen on a modest basis before the end of the year. The UK is also exploring the possibility of providing some technical assistance to Iraq.
Sir Denis asked how we saw the situation. Did we see a possibility of an unholy marriage between Iraq and Syria? Mr. Battle said we do [Page 321] not of course have the opportunity of talking to either of them. Our impression was that things in Iraq look a bit better. There is, however, little likelihood of a resumption of US-Iraqi relations soon. This will no doubt depend on what the UAR does. We still consider Iraq as basically unstable, and we are concerned about the formation of the Eastern Arab Command of Iraq, Jordan and Syria. He noted that if King Hussein departs from the scene, all bets are off with Iraq, Syria and Jordan. The situation would then be most unpredictable.
Sir Denis said there have been no recent developments in the Iraq Petroleum Company’s relations with Iraq. IPC is quietly hopeful that the situation will not get worse, but has just about written off the likelihood of access to the North Rumaila fields on a regular basis. Mr. Urwick noted the possibility that IPC might exploit the fields on a contract basis for the Iraq National Oil Company.
Sir Denis concluded the discussion on Iraq by noting that the UK has not talked at all to the Iraqis regarding Gulf developments. He supposed that they would at some point express an interest. Mr. Gatch recalled that Iraq had reserved the right to have its interests taken into account in the event of a settlement of the Iran-Kuwait median line question.
7. Yemen-South Yemen
Mr. Brewer characterized the situation in Yemen as a mess. The civil war between the Republicans and the Royalists goes on, and at the same time there has been a mutiny within the Republican army ranks. Armi seems to have survived this, in part by sending off the dissident officers to Algeria for “training”. Nonetheless his base of power is narrower. Consequently there is less likelihood of his being able to establish contact with the Saudis in order to work out through them a compromise settlement with the Royalists, who were themselves split into factions.
In South Yemen, Mr. Brewer said, we have noted with concern the agreement on military and technical assistance with the Soviets, and also that the PRSY Foreign Minister was on a mission to Peking. He foresaw the possibility of the Soviets and the Chinese Communists competing for influence in PRSY as they had in Yemen a decade before.
Sir Denis speculated on the possibility of Yemen and South Yemen uniting eventually. Mr. Brewer said this was not likely. What was less unlikely was the possibility that Yemen would split, with perhaps the Imam regaining power in the north. In that event, it was possible that the southern half would join forces with PRSY.
At this point Mr. Battle said the items for discussion on the agenda had been covered. He had two further matters he would like to discuss.[Page 322]
a. Nasser’s Health
Mr. Battle asked whether the UK had an assessment. Sir Denis said the UK had gone over various medical reports carefully. The consensus seems to be that Nasser’s symptoms suggest his diabetes has advanced to a stage where insulin treatment is not effective. When this happens, the diabetic tires easily and is not capable of sustained effort. If this diagnosis is correct, Nasser could not now be treated in a way to prevent further decline. The decline is slow and could go on for a long time, but eventually he probably will reach a stage where he will decide to remove himself from office.
Mr. Battle said this was substantially our understanding. He noted that Nasser’s condition had become aggravated by the extreme tension he has been under during the past year and a half. We thought Nasser might be able to function for a year or two or even longer, but the trend is inevitably downward.
b. The Fatah
Mr. Battle asked whether the UK had a current assessment of foreign connection with the Fatah. We had noted intelligence reports indicating the Fatah had been using Chinese Communist equipment, including mines. Sir Denis said the UK did not have much new, and said that a current assessment would be useful. Mr. Battle noted that the activities of the Fatah often seemed directed as much at the host nations, particularly Jordan, as at the Israelis. Sir Denis said he believed the Fatah was bound to grow as long as the Israelis remained in occupation.
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 33 PERSIAN GULF. Secret. Drafted by John N. Gatch (NEA/ARP) on September 18.↩
- The Shah made a state visit to Saudi Arabia in November 1968.↩
- On August 21 following negotiations in Tehran, National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) Chairman Manuchehr Eqbal and Saudi Minister of Petroleum Shaykh Ahmad Zaki Yamani initialed an agreement on a new median line for the area in the Persian Gulf disputed between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (Telegram 6139 from Tehran, August 22, 1968, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 33 PERSIAN GULF)↩