163. Telegram 446 From the Embassy in Iran to the Department of State1 2

Pass SecDef and SecNav

From Navy Secy Chafee and Amb MacArthur


  • Shah Questions Desirability of Continuation MIDEASTFOR in Bahrain


  • Tehran 403

Summary: We met alone with Shah January 20 for hour and forty-five minutes. Discussion was wide-ranging covering (a) his desire to build up Iranian Navy (reported separately) and develop Char Bahar as Air-Naval base (reftel); (b) his well-known view previously reported re deterioration of situation on his eastern and western frontiers and his concern re substantial Soviet gains in Mid-East/South Asian area in past eight months with possibility Iran might find itself increasingly isolated; and (c) his growing concern and doubts about wisdom of maintaining MIDEASTFOR in Bahrain, which subject covered major part of discussion. Shah indicated he feels obliged to continue criticize MIDEASTFOR presence in Gulf but if US is “really serious about remaining in Gulf,” he would not privately object.

Shah raised subject of Gulf and MIDEASTFOR facilities in Bahrain. He said since British announcement of withdrawal from Gulf in 1968, he had consistently taken public position that after British withdrrawal no one should replace them there, that there should be no foreign presence in Gulf and that littoral states should cooperate to secure security of that vital body of water. He could not backtrack on this position for he believed in it and if he backtracked his position of leadership in area would be ended.
He said he is therefore obliged publicly to criticize base agreement we have made with Bahrain. However, he wanted to say most confidentially—“and he hoped he would not read about it in the newspapers”—that if USG is “really serious about remaining in Gulf and shows it by its actions,” he would not object to our presence there. At same time he wanted us frankly to know he would still feel obliged to criticize publicly our agreement with Bahrain.
We explained to Shah (as Ambassador had previously) that there is nothing new in our presence in Bahrain; that MIDEASTFOR had been there for years and was not in any sense replacing British; and that facilities we use there are largely commercial and communications facilities and facilities for recreation and dependents in which we use only a small portion of old British base.
Shah said he knew all this and had discussed it a few days ago with Ambassador. However, Soviets, Egyptians and some moderate as well as radical Arabs as well as American press and Congress all publicly proclaim we had acquired naval base in Bahrain. He is obliged to oppose this. However, he reiterated confidentially that if we are “really serious,” he has no objection to our presence there. However, if we are not, he thought our presence there would bring grief to area and do more harm than good.
We asked what he meant by “really serious.” He replied Soviet Navy has been visiting Gulf with most modern vessels including 15,000 ton cruiser, missile ships, submarines, etc., whereas US is in Bahrain and Gulf with only two obsolescent destroyers and non-combatant flagship. This simply draws attacks on US. If we are “serious,” we would supplement MIDEASTFOR presence in Bahrain by matching Russian naval visits with visits by modern equivalent US fleet units, adding, “If Russians bring in a 15,000 ton cruiser to show flag, you should bring in one of 20,000 tons.”
We said we would report his views but pointed out that there are other very important and relevant aspects to our presence in Gulf. For example, what would be effect on [Page 3] moderate Arab Gulf states if US withdrew from Bahrain and Gulf as result of Soviet and radical Arab propaganda attacks? Would not moderate Gulf Arab states that did not have strength and superior leadership that Shah gave Iran gain impression that US was abandoning area to Soviet-radical Arab take-over? And if they had such impression, would not this cause them to feel Soviets are wave of future and therefore they must reach accommodation with Soviets and radical Arabs and this in turn could result in their being eventually swallowed up. If this happened, Iran would have a very unfriendly environment on Arab side of Gulf.
Shah said there was something in this argument, but he could not change his basic policy and public stance, with which he understood we agreed, that peace and security in Gulf should be maintained by close cooperation of littoral states without interference of outside powers. We said USG agreed littoral states should cooperate to maintain stability and security in Gulf but pointed out that home porting of MIDEASTFOR in Bahrain could not be construed as interference and that we had neither a base in Bahrain nor any military or political commitments. Ruler of Bahrain, whom Secretary Chafee had just seen, had indicated that while he wanted us there, he is deeply concerned by Iran’s criticism of recent agreement re MIDEASTFOR. If Iranian criticism continued, it might cause Bahrain ruler and other moderate Arab Gulf regimes which did not wish us to abandon Gulf to take position similar to Iran’s and request us to leave. While this was what Soviets wanted, it would not seem to serve interests of Iran.
Shah said while Bahrain ruler might wish us to stay, he had not said so publicly. Secretary Chafee pointed out ruler made public statement making clear that no base or other commitments or political deals were involved and that new agreement necessary after Bahrain received independence and it was simply continuation of old arrangement. Shah then talked at some length about Soviet efforts to penetrate Gulf and observed that by critcizing MIDEASTFOR presence in Gulf, he would be in excellent position to attack and criticize Soviets should they try to get a base in Gulf. If Soviets tried, he would pull out all stops even taking matter to UN. We pointed out that as practical matter Soviets are already in Gulf as they are building a port and naval facilities for [Page 4] Iraq at Umm Qasr which obviously destined for use by Soviet vessels visiting Gulf. We referred to earlier statement by Shah that Soviets had not only many Army and Air but also Naval personnel in Iraq, including number in civilian clothes at Umm Qasr, which would support Soviet naval activities in Gulf.
Discussion ebbed back and forth with Shah expressing understanding of points we made but maintaining position he had expressed. Finally, in effort to get at problem from another angle, we summarized what we understood Shah’s position to be as follows:
Shah understands US has not taken over British base in Bahrain or replaced British there and our presence is simply continuation of home porting arrangement we have had for many years.
However, Soviets, Egypt and radical Arab states as well as US press and some Members of Congress all maintain we have acquired base in Bahrain and therefore everyone in area believes this.
While most confidentially Shah does not in principle oppose MIDEASTFOR in Gulf if we will augment it by visits of modern fleet unites to match Soviet activity, he is publicly obliged to criticize Bahrain arrangement because of (a) conviction in area we have acquired a base and (b) his public position that British should not be replaced, there should be no foreign bases in Gulf, etc.
Final US decision regarding continuing presence of MIDEASTFOR in Bahrain can only be made by US, but as close friend, Shah wants us to know that unless we are “serious” and by that he means our matching Soviet Gulf visits, Shah feels continuing MIDEASTFOR presence in Bahrain risks doing more harm than good.
US has not adequately got true facts across to world about Bahrain agreement and unless we can counter Soviet and Arab propaganda and convince people in area that we have not obtained base in Bahrain, he has no choice but to be critical of our presence. Shah said this was fair summary of how he viewed matter.
We again pointed out that continued critical comment from Iran, particularly at this delicate and difficult time for ruler of Bahrain, could do much harm. Since Shah had already made his point publicly, was there any pressing need for Iran to say anything more at this time? Could [Page 5] not Iran remain silent for period to see whether initial propaganda assault launched by Soviets and radical Arabs who wished to see all vestiges of American presence and influence eliminated from area would die down as had furor over islands? While Shah made no commitment about this request for moratorium on Iranian statements, he did not challenge contention that having already made his own position publicly clear particularly to countries in this area, there is no need in immediate future to make further critical statements.
Although discussion was long and on occasion difficult, Shah was at all times personally friendly and reiterated his strong friendship for US and appreciation for its cooperation, which he said Iran needed just as US needs Iran’s friendship and cooperation in this vitally important area.
Position Shah took in above meeting is substantially more critical than position he took forty-eight hours before with Ambassador (reftel). We believe it reflects his increasing preoccupation over possiblity Iran may find itself largely isolated by future Soviet gains in area and also corresponding doubts as to whether US has determination, will and ability to remain in area. In this connection when we said our determination to remain in this vital area is firm, he commented that while he had great confidence in President Nixon and would like to see him re-elected, he wondered whether Congress and American people in their present mood would permit President to follow the policies he had laid out.
Although Shah made no commitment to suspend critical comments on our Bahrain arrangement, we both had impression that there is reasonable possiblity that he may be responsive to our request at least for time being. Fact he is leaving next week for one month private visit to Switzerland would also afford pretext for not making any public statements on Bahrain. If he does declare moratorium, how long he will keep it would probably depend on whether propaganda furor by Soviets and radical Arabs dies down. This in turn may be largely determined by how US Congress and American press treat this question in congressional discussions on our Bahrain arrangments, which we understand are planned for near future.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL IRAN-US. Secret; Nodis. Passed to SECDEF and SECNAV. This telegram was submitted for inclusion in the President’s Wednesday Briefing for January 25. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Saunders Files, Middle East Negotiations, Box 1282, Iran 1/1/72–5/31/72.)
  2. In conversation with Ambassador MacArthur and Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee, the Shah was dubious about the wisdom of maintaining MIDEASTFOR in Bahrain.