193. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Iraq1

206672. 1. Foreign Minister Pachachi met separately with Under Secretary Rostow and Secretary afternoon June 1 immediately prior to meeting with President. Following points emerged:

2. The Under Secretary said two fundamental principles not directly related to Israel-Arab dispute were involved in present situation which had been precipitated almost by accident following SYG’s sudden withdrawal of UNEF particularly from Sharm el Sheikh. These were (a) freedom of seas which US defended all over world and (b) territorial integrity and political independence of states.

3. Rostow pointed out that US commitment to territorial integrity and political independence of states in Middle East had been clearly demonstrated in 1956 when US action in effect saved Nasser. Pachachi reply that this US action in 1956 was something which Arab States will never forget. Rostow commented that of all States in area, UAR was one which should be most aware of this.

4. Rostow pointed that freedom of passage through Strait of Tiran was affected by arrangements reached in 1957. At that time Israel withdrew from Sinai with the assurance that we and other maritime nations would support the international character of these waters. At the same time, the Ambassador of Israel stated in the United Nations that Israel would regard any violation of this principle by armed force as a hostile act justifying retaliation under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Our Ambassador “took note” of this statement. The Government of Israel has recently reaffirmed the view that it regards its rights of passage through the Strait, as they have been exercised for ten years, as a vital national interest. In present situation, USG had successfully exercised maximum diplomatic pressure to restrain Israel from a strike to which GOI felt entitled as a result of Nasser’s action in announcing blockade of Strait of Tiran. It had not been easy to achieve as Israelis believe they have strong legal position. As result, time had been bought. During this breathing period peaceful settlement might be arranged. In this context it was encouraging to note that Nasser, while he had announced closing of Strait, had not yet used force to do so.

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5. Pachachi said arrangements USG made in 1957 did not bind UAR and that Nasser had simply returned situation to that which had existed before “aggression of 1956.” Egypt’s move was not an offensive act. He questioned whether desire to secure freedom of passage through Tiran Strait was based on legal principles because maritime nations had been silent on issue prior to 1956. One thing on which all parties agreed was importance of providing for breathing spell during which modus vivendi could be worked out. SYG had informed him that he had proposed and Nasser had agreed that for a two week period the UAR would refrain from search and seizure at Strait, provided no Israeli flag ship and no petroleum tanker bound for Eilat attempted passage. Israel had refused. He thought SYG’s proposal offered reasonable formulas for breathing period.

6. Under Secretary said nub of problem was right of freedom of passage through Strait on which US position was firm. Any use of force to interfere with that right could constitute the first shot in a war which would be disastrous to all concerned. US and UK were in agreement that if hostilities occurred Israel would win and win hard. It was this war that USG sought to prevent.

7. The Foreign Minister said that the Arab states had often repeated that they would take no offensive action against Israel. The closing of the Strait was not an offensive act. War would be averted if Israel could be prevailed upon to refrain from using force to open the Strait. Mr. Rostow pointed out that the only way this could be achieved would [be] if everybody agreed not to use force during the breathing spell, and specifically if UAR agreed not to use force to close the Strait. On the basis of some such understanding, which would leave the situation as it was before Nasser’s announcement, the problem could be solved by agreement, or the UAR could take the matter to the International Court.

8. The Foreign Minister replied that Mr. Rostow’s approach was different from that of Ambassador Goldberg, who talked in terms of belligerent rights. Perhaps a resolution based on the idea that neither side would use force during the breathing spell could work, if supplemented by private understandings about the actual movement of ships during the period.

9. Mr. Rostow said he was not aware of differing from Ambassador Goldberg. The essence of the problem was that we could see grave risks of war, given the GOI position on Article 51, and the support it would attract, unless the UAR agreed not to use force to carry out its threat to close the Strait.

10. The Foreign Minister observed that all agreed that there should be a breathing spell. The question was what conditions would prevail during that interim. Either Egypt could be asked to restore the situation [Page 380] to what it was before May 22 and thus surrender completely to Israel’s demands or the present situation could be frozen and tacit understanding reached on the details of traffic through the Strait while efforts were made to reach a more permanent solution. Mr. Rostow said this led to the key issue on which agreement should be reached. The US position was very clear. He did not suggest the withdrawal of Egyptian troops nor did we wish to humiliate the UAR. At the same time he admitted that there were grounds for discussion on the appropriateness of the Secretary General’s action. He was not suggesting any surrender of principle by either side, but the prevention of war.

11. In conclusion Under Secretary said speaking personally that he would go along with any combination of public or private words that accomplished the result and preserved things as they were. The strength of the US position on this point should not be underestimated. We were against aggression, and against the first shot. The US would remain loyal to its commitments. He noted as a matter of fact that no Israeli vessels were scheduled to pass the Strait during next two weeks. If force were not used to curtail freedom of passage, a breathing spell acceptable to all might be worked out.

12. In his conversation with Secretary, Pachachi covered essentially same ground as above. He emphasized again importance of two week breathing period in which to explore possibilities longer term arrangement. He maintained arrangements for two week period must be based on practical considerations with principles held in abeyance without prejudice to position either party at end period. Secretary stressed importance USG attached to maintaining freedom of passage through Strait of Tiran. Our position involved a principle which we defended in similar situations all over world.

13. In this talk, however, he seemed to back away from the hint he gave Under Secretary Rostow that oil shipments might be accepted on the ground they were “economically necessary.”

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27 ARAB-ISR. Secret; Priority; Exdis. Drafted by David L. Gamon (NEA/ARN), Houghton, and Eugene Rostow on June 1; cleared by Davies; and approved by Rostow. Repeated to Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Jidda, Tel Aviv, London, Jerusalem, and USUN.