31. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President’s Meeting with King Hussein of Jordan, The Cabinet Room


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Assistant Secretary of State Alfred L. Atherton, Jr.
  • William B. Quandt, NSC Staff
  • Hamilton Jordan
  • Jody Powell
  • King Hussein
  • Sharif Abdul Hamid Sharaf
  • Lt. Gen. Sharif Zaid Bin Shakir

President: I thought the supper went well last night.2 It’s extremely important for the members of Congress to get to know you and to hear about the options for this year’s negotiations. Senator Stone and Senator Javits, both of whom are important in the Jewish community, told me that they were pleased with what you said. They both seem to share a concern about the possibility of an independent, perhaps radical, Palestinian government that might be set up and which could have strong ties to Libya, or to the Soviet Union, and which would be a disruptive force. To some degree, we all share this concern. They were reassured by your opinion that if the Palestinians have the chance to express themselves, they will want tight ties to Jordan.

We talked a bit after dinner about relations with other nations that do not border on Israel, including the Saudis, Iran, Iraq, and Libya, and it would help me if you could outline your thoughts on those countries. We have difficult relations now with Libya, and they seem to be deteriorating. We have some tentative overtures from the Iraqis, and we have excellent and improving friendship with the Saudis. I can’t yet comment on Iran, but we have historically been friends. I would value your advice on how we might approach them.

King Hussein: I can tell you how we see them. First, let me begin with our neighbors. As you know in Lebanon, there has been a tre[Page 227]mendous loss of life and a great deal of damage. This was not only brought about by their internal problems, which required great leadership, and which would have had to be worked out. But there were also external pressures which were able to capitalize on the internal weaknesses. We have high hopes that the younger generation of Lebanese—and we have been in touch with most of them—will be able to find a formula that will be acceptable to all to help rebuild their country. The situation in the south remains very dangerous, and there is always the danger of an explosion which might involve the Syrians and maybe the whole area. We are very aware of the dangers there.

President: Are there any facets of the Lebanese situation that need to be dealt with in the peace settlement, or can we leave them alone?

King Hussein: The Lebanese should be involved, maybe at a later stage. They are important to the Palestinian issue.

President: The Lebanese borders should be intact, but that is a special subject.

King Hussein: There is the question of the border itself.

President: Is that in question?

King Hussein: It is internationally recognized.

Secretary Vance: The Lebanese-Israeli border is internationally recognized, but it should be reaffirmed in the peacemaking process and Lebanon’s territorial integrity should be acknowledged.

King Hussein: The Lebanese are also concerned with the Palestinian problem. At this time the problem is a serious one. If the Palestinians were to become Lebanese citizens, this would upset the balance in Lebanon.

President: Are the Palestinians in Lebanon interested in seeing themselves as Lebanese or would they move to the West Bank if there were an entity there?

King Hussein: The same would apply to them as elsewhere. They should be given the choice of compensation or resettlement. Some Palestinians have been in Lebanon since 1948, and others have come more recently. Lebanon would want the latter to leave.

President: Arafat has his home there.

King Hussein: Yes. Some Palestinians, if they were to stay, would want to be recognized as Palestinians living in Lebanon. This would be important because of the precarious balance in the country.

Secretary Vance: President Sarkis felt that it would be important that the refugees in the camps be removed, that the burden of keeping them there is too great.

Dr. Brzezinski: Could they be resettled in the West Bank?

King Hussein: I doubt it; most of them don’t come from there.

[Page 228]

Mr. Sharaf: The absorptive capacity of the West Bank is limited, but if they can receive the nationality of the new Palestinian entity, this would change their status and it would help solve a major problem in Lebanon which results from the imbalance which they create.

President: So they would have the status of aliens, and no rights as citizens?

Mr. Sharaf: Yes, but they would also have the right of repatriation or compensation, and the right to move around, and they would not live in camps, and they could emigrate. The more qualified among them would probably join the new state.

Dr. Brzezinski: The camps would have to be liquidated and the refugees resettled, or the Palestinian problem would be kept alive, even if there were a homeland created.

King Hussein: We are trying our best to help in Lebanon. We have had many contacts with the Syrians from the beginning, and we have helped to formulate a joint opinion. There was a serious danger at one point that Syria might support one side against the other in Lebanon, and it would be more natural for Syria to support the radicals. We had many contacts with President Asad, and eventually Syria took a very balanced position.

President: We thought so. Do you consider Jordan to have about the right number, or too many, or not enough Palestinians?

King Hussein: We still have the capacity to absorb more, if we are provided the resources to do so.

President: Very good. That’s very helpful.

King Hussein: With Syria, we have the possibilities of establishing the kind of relationship for others to look to. Our state will not disappear, but we are working to bring states closer together for cooperation and to bring about positive developments for our people. We are engaging in joint economic planning, we are working on common resources, and in Syrian schools in the early years they now use the Jordanian syllabus. We have made good progress, especially compared to the recent past. There is now an atmosphere of respect and confidence, based on non-interference in each other’s affairs. On the political side, we also need to be able to see what is happening.

President: Do you look on the European model as some kind of pattern?

King Hussein: Yes.

President: But with continued autonomy and sovereignty for each state, within a framework of cooperation?

King Hussein: Yes, but Syria wants more. But we have seen too many examples in the past of experiments which have been set up on the basis of emotions, and we don’t want setbacks. On the military side, [Page 229] instead of moving right away to a joint military command, we might try to standardize training and organization. This would take years, but it is the best way.

President: When you learn how to standardize equipment, let us know so that we can apply it to NATO.

King Hussein: Regardless of the system of government, we hope to be able to cooperate with our neighbors.

President: Is it correct that Egypt has mentioned joining this group?

King Hussein: They are interested in political coordination, and joint political leadership.

President: Do you favor Egypt’s joining?

King Hussein: Yes, it is very important in this phase to deal with our problems together.

President: Are any of the nations in your area reluctant to move toward more cooperation?

King Hussein: There is not much problem between Jordan and Syria. We also know that the Lebanese are looking at our experiment as well. I have told the Syrians that we should think in terms of broader cooperation than just our two countries, and that therefore we should not go too fast.

President: Are there any objections from Saudi Arabia or Iran?

King Hussein: Saudi Arabia is a little bit apprehensive, but I keep in constant touch with them.

Secretary Vance: What are their concerns?

King Hussein: They fear that we will become radicals.

Mr. Sharaf: The Syrian tradition has been that they are the center of Arab radicalism and of extreme Arab nationalism. They have mellowed recently, and King Hussein has influenced President Asad to bring about a change in his attitude, both towards the United States and in the Lebanon situation. But the Saudis still have some fears that Syria will influence Jordan rather than Jordan influencing Syria. His Majesty has assured Saudi Arabia that we are talking about cooperation, not merger, and that we will help to moderate Syrian policy.

President: That helps me to understand.

King Hussein: Iran has excellent relations with us and with Syria, and we are very happy to see Iran and the Arab world on more friendly terms. The only problem is that Syria is over-stretched in Lebanon and this is causing serious economic problems. There are also pressures from others. They are not happy with the Lebanon situation and Syria needs to be able to concentrate again on development.

As for our Egyptian friends, their problems are well known. Our only worry is the fact that Egypt has never been very constant in its [Page 230] policy. They go from the extreme right to the extreme left and we see no pattern of logic in what has happened. The January events3 were fortunately brought under control, but the situation there is serious. The Egyptian people have been promised a solution to their problems very quickly and obviously people’s expectations have risen and now they are disappointed. Even with the greatest resources, Egypt will not be able to solve its problems quickly. The same difficulties could occur again if the Egyptians promise solutions to problems this year. It is very difficult for the leadership there, and it is a worry for us because any alternative government would be an extremist regime.

Behind us are Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iraq, and Libya, all of which have great resources. But we hope slowly that they will come to see ways of using their resources to contribute to building up their countries and to furthering cooperation. I think there has been some progress, but not enough. As a result, I have described the area around Israel as a poverty belt. We have the problem that all of our qualified people can be offered more money to work in the rich countries. In Jordan, many of them work to help their families and they come back, but this is not the case everywhere.

President: Do you see Saudi Arabia as being constructive in its approach to financial problems? Do Iranians have the same attitude?

King Hussein: Iran has been even more helpful than Saudi Arabia. Iran has been very quick to help us and to help Egypt, and now even Syria.

President: This is something that we might try to study more. How could the financial resources of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and to some degree our own resources, be channeled into the region so that they could serve as a substitute for constant military expenditures?

Does Qadhafi interfere in your country?

King Hussein: In the entire area, he does.

President: What should we do?

King Hussein: Once he declared a peaceful march on Cairo, and we suggested that the Egyptians stage a counter march and that we would join. Qadhafi tends to support all of the radical elements.

President: He does that all over, even here. Panamanian leader Torrijos was just there.

Secretary Vance: He took a big shopping list, but we are not sure that he got much.

President: He is also involved in the Philippines.

[Page 231]

King Hussein: Our situation on the economic front is that we have to still purchase a great deal abroad and commodity prices have been going up. There has been an increase in prices, especially of oil, and this is really affecting us. We are trying to control inflation, and to provide for people’s needs. We have an easier time of it than Egypt and Syria, but we still have difficulties. Apart from that, there is the case of Saudi Arabia where we see the danger that even after five years or more of development, they will not have reduced their reliance on oil. And they are bringing as many as one million foreigners from all over into the country. One wonders, since we don’t even know the size of their population, what proportion of the total that will be and what social problems it might cause. There is no challenge in Saudi Arabia for the young. There is the problem, and this is relative, that those who have three million dollars are envious of those who have five million dollars.

Further on in the Gulf, Kuwait seems a little bit more stable, but if Egypt and Libya were to collide, this might set a dangerous precedent in the Iraqi-Kuwaiti area. Iraq might then move on Kuwait.

President: I asked you last night, and it might be useful to go over this again for everyone else, whether any of the nations of the Middle East would be concerned if we were to renew our relationship with Iraq.

King Hussein: Maybe they would be to some degree, but a direct channel of communication would be more helpful than if you had no contact at all. Syria is most likely to wonder, but you could explain it to them.

President: We see Iraq as having great disruptive potential if they feel isolated, so we are considering some steps in their direction.

King Hussein: Their President is ailing, and their Vice President is ruthless, although he is very intelligent. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use his intelligence constructively. They are undertaking a massive military buildup. During the Lebanon crisis, they were able to put six divisions of their army on the Syrian border. This has worried us a great deal. We had to mass some of our troops on their border in support of Syria. But they have a massive concentration of arms and it could become a threat. It worries us.

The Saudi buildup is also continuing, but we wonder about their capability and their training. It is not clear that the buildup will have any meaning.

President: No one fears the Saudis? Is the same true for Iran?

King Hussein: No, Iran is modernizing. We sometimes wonder because they have never had a test of strength, except in Oman, but there is a vast difference in the quality of the Iranian and the Saudi military capability.

[Page 232]

Secretary Vance: I put the question to Foreign Minister Khaddam on how he would react to our talking with Iraq. He said it would be constructive.

King Hussein: The Iraqis have been in touch with us recently also, so they must have some internal problems and they want some contacts.

President: We would welcome it; if there is anything you can add, we would be appreciative.

King Hussein: In the rest of the Gulf, in Bahrain, Qatar, things are all right. In Qatar there is a little problem of succession within the family. The present ruler is very good and Qatar has made great progress. The UAE, however, is a mess. It is not at all united. We have a large presence there and a Jordanian officer heads their military establishment.

Oman is much better off than it was before. They have done good planning and they have more population than the others. They have potential. We are working very closely with them. They have asked us for some FMS-financed C–130s, and they say they cannot pay but would like to buy them on long-term credit. Otherwise, things are all right in Oman.

We are in constant touch also with North Yemen, and even now with South Yemen. We may soon have diplomatic relations there. We want to offer them some scholarships and get some of their young people to Jordan. We also have good relations with Sudan. The Sudanese are worried about developments in Zaire and Ethiopia and about the Libyan connection. I am sure that President Sadat spoke to you about this.

The relations between Morocco and Algeria are still not very happy. This is sad to see. But with Tunisia we have good relations and these will continue. President Bourguiba is an interesting man, and he represents the history of his country. He is still the symbol of his state. Tunisia is quite stable.

Most of these countries do not want to get directly involved in the Israeli problem and they prefer to stay behind in the peacemaking process. Some like Saudi Arabia will encourage progress, but they will not want to do so in public. Saudi Arabia also has the strange idea that Arafat and Fatah are their creation. But in the PLO it is almost like a stage play. Sometimes they act extreme, sometimes moderate, and they move in different ways depending on the audience.

President: Tell me again the Saudi view of the PLO.

King Hussein: They feel that they influence the PLO and that Fatah is the most moderate, the largest of the groups, and so they champion it, especially Arafat.

[Page 233]

President: It is important for us to know whether you think it would help for us to share our thoughts and our plans with the Saudis.

King Hussein: I believe it would be helpful.

President: That is also my feeling. You don’t have any reservations?

King Hussein: No, we try to keep in touch with the Saudis.

President: A long range vision of economic and social progress in the Middle East might help to settle differences. The very rich countries could help to guarantee that this would be possible. We have found that the Saudis are very helpful when we consult with them.

Secretary Vance: They have been very cooperative.

President: They are eager to see progress made this year.

King Hussein: I hope that Crown Prince Fahd will influence matters there. He is the most positive personality and the most able.

President: Do you think that his becoming the titular head of Saudi Arabia is imminent?

King Hussein: We have some reports that indicate that the King, because of his health, may hand over power to Fahd. There has been a tremendous gap and great uncertainty ever since Faisal’s death.4 There are many forces working in the country, and these have some influence on Saudi Arabia’s ability to play a more positive role.

President: Is Fahd secure in his leadership position?

King Hussein: He has the good will of most of the people. But we will have to watch carefully. Most of the other Arabs will encourage progress toward a peace settlement, but some will always be anti-everything. They don’t believe that a solution is possible, and if one is not achieved, then they will claim that they were able to predict it.

President: I have one more question. How do the Arabs see Turkey—as a distant country, or as moving closer to them?

King Hussein: As a rather distant country now, although geographically and historically we have been very close to Turkey. But Turkey now seems to be looking inward.

President: We have had some information that Turkey has an inclination to look more toward your region than in the past. We have some mixed emotions, because Turkey is such a vital part of NATO and we want them to stay in NATO. But we have heard that they are moving more toward the Middle East than toward Europe.

King Hussein: Nothing yet has happened.

[Page 234]

President: There may be some things that you would like to discuss. I am an eager student and I would welcome your ideas, your advice and your thoughts.

King Hussein: We have some of our own problems that I would like to mention. In our armed forces, we are trying to cut from five to four divisions and to provide them with modernized equipment. In February we completed our reorganization, and we are halfway through our program of providing modern equipment, especially armor with the help of Iran. We want to modify all of our M–48 tanks so that they will have a 105mm. gun, and we want to substitute diesel engines for the gasoline engines that they have now. They have very limited range with gas engines. We are also looking at our armed forces as a source of stability, not only for ourselves, but for the region. We would have no hesitation to send troops for example to Oman or Kuwait. It is easier for us as a member of the family to do this than for any outside element. We hope to complete our modernization of the army by 1980 and of the air force by 1983. We will need help from our friends. For our air force, we had originally planned to have 100 F–5Es by 1980, but when we take a closer look, we think perhaps we need 60 F–5Es and then the balance might be F–16s or some equivalent. We need to have the capability to intercept and to defend ourselves.

We hope both on the military side and on the economic development side to have a complete plan soon that we will be able to take to our friends, especially to Saudis. We don’t want to have problems, and we want to be able to present a full view so that they can see what we plan to do and so that we can have a clearer picture of what they are prepared to do. This will be the same with all of our friends.

President: May I ask a question? We have found through Secretary Vance’s discussions that all of the countries want to lower the levels of their arms purchases, but, of course, they don’t want to do this unilaterally. Do you feel that it would be possible for the Arabs, and Iran as well, to set lower levels for their long range weapons purchases if assurances could be given that Israel would do the same?

We would like to be able to lower the levels of our arms sales. We feel that too much is being spent on weapons. We would like a worldwide lowering of arms sales and we could do some of this even unilaterally, but we do not want to hurt our friends. Our manufacturers, of course, want to sell as much as they can. But if you could consider this, I would be interested in your views. It might be helpful to try to start this process, since arms purchases rob countries of resources that can be used for economic progress.

Secretary Vance: I raised this with the Syrians. They said that if there were peace, then they would look with favor on a program of re[Page 235]duction of arms purchases, but that this would be conditioned upon achieving a settlement.

King Hussein: This would apply to all of us, except where the Soviets are pouring in weapons.

President: You mean Libya and Iraq?

King Hussein: Libya and Iraq. This creates imbalances.

President: We might be able to help there. We want to pursue this with the Soviets and Secretary Vance has already raised it.

Secretary Vance: The Soviet response has been that once you solve the political problem, then they would be prepared to reduce the flow of arms.

King Hussein: In the main, what we want is to update and modernize what we now have. There are not many changes. But we now have old tanks.

President: Have you ever flown the F–16?

King Hussein: No, but I saw it fly.

Mr. Sharaf: Our armed forces have been a source of stability in the area in recent decades. These forces have helped us to deter aggression and they have not been used only in our confrontations with Israel. We have also needed them to confront radical forces in the area. They help us a great deal in confronting Iraq, and even with Syria.

General Bin Shaker: A good comparison with our armed forces is Iraq. They have nine divisions, and we are now down to four.

King Hussein: They have just made three billion dollars’ worth of arms purchases.

General Bin Shaker: They have made large purchases from the Soviets, from Europe, and they are not the most reliable of neighbors. When they had problems with Syria, they were able to put 6 divisions on the Syrian border within ten days—two armored, two mechanized, and one mountain.

President: I have noticed that there was a new oil discovery on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border. I guess that is a rather doubtful border. In some areas there seem to be two lines showing an uncertain demarcation.

King Hussein: This oil discovery will increase the danger of a clash.

General Bin Shaker: We have been discussing the possibility of buying a Cobra helicopter.5 We can’t imagine fighting tank to tank against our neighbors. We need something more effective.

King Hussein: We are relying mostly on the morale, the training, and the quality of our forces, not on quantity.

[Page 236]

President: You have a well-deserved reputation for your armed forces. With Israel, your entry into war has been reluctant. Is that right?

King Hussein: We were totally surprised in 1973. In 1967, we foresaw the war, but we could do nothing to prevent it.

President: We hope we will all be able to prevent wars in the future.

Mr. Sharaf: In 1967 the King was warning about the possible dangers in the area and the increase in tensions. He even feared that Israel might use the tensions as a pretext. The King worked hard to try to awaken interest in the danger and to warn against confrontation. We saw it coming, but we could not prevent it.

King Hussein: Either we had to do nothing and then we would have faced an internal uprising, and the West Bank would have been taken anyway, or we had to try to prevent the war. But we failed.

President: Have you talked to Secretary Brown about the Cobras?

King Hussein: We touched on it yesterday.6

President: We would look with favor on that generally. I am not sure of the numbers.

Ambassador Pickering: I believe that nine were included in the request.

President: Is that too many?

General Bin Shaker: It is just a start.

President: I have flown in it. It is quite a vehicle. It flies at 200 miles an hour just at ground level and that seems just as fast as going 600 miles an hour.

King Hussein: Kuwait cannot be defended from Kuwait itself. But if we develop good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, then we can hope to contain the dangers. But we need to develop this basic agreement.

Mr. Sharaf: Even for our relations with Syria, we need to be strong and to have a good military balance.

King Hussein: A relationship between equals is much more likely to succeed than a lopsided one.

Mr. Sharaf: May I bring to the President’s attention another issue? There are some Lebanese Christian leaders who have seen His Majesty recently, and they have said that they envisage a tripartite relationship among Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan and that Jordan’s participation would be a good guarantee to the Lebanese Christians and to the integ[Page 237]rity of their state. This relates also to Jordan’s ability to provide strength where it is needed.

President: Do you have any formal commitment to help Kuwait if it is attacked?

King Hussein: We are always ready, but we are not at that point.

President: But the option is there and the Kuwaitis know.

How do you feel about the possible demilitarization of Indian Ocean? The Soviets have been building up their presence, especially in Somalia, which may not be a very good bet. The Indians are very eager, and the Australians want to be involved. How do you react?

King Hussein: It would be good to get the Soviets out.

President: That’s what we have in mind. We have an airfield at Diego Garcia which is nearing completion, but it has little military value except for reconnaissance and refueling. We have also started on talks with the Soviet Union on this issue. India has favored the idea.

Mr. Sharaf: We would also like the President’s support for our economic development plans. We have received sympathy from you for our military requirements. Our technical people are here with His Majesty and will be meeting with their counterparts. We have been receiving $70 million a year from the United States in budget support and in technical assistance. Now you are planning to reduce the budget support and to put more into project loans. You have requested nearly $93 million in the next year, subject to Congressional approval, and we hope that this could be increased some. We agree to put more emphasis on projects, and we would like support on two major projects: potash and the development of water and agricultural resources in the Jordan Valley. We hope to get the support of Arab funds, the World Bank, and international agencies. It will be very helpful if the United States supports this. These are important points in our five-year plan which we submitted last January. We hope that you will lend support so that we can develop our economy.

President: Do you see having excess potash for export? There seems to be no problem with the demand for fertilizer.

King Hussein: We have had some contacts with our neighbors about this.

Secretary Vance: We have provided some help on a feasibility study of the potash project.

Ambassador Pickering: We have also offered our good offices between Israel and Jordan to work out questions of water rights. This is going well and the parties see us as a catalyst for bringing in other donors. We are moving from being a catalyst in the political area to being one in the economic area as well.

[Page 238]

President: I hope that Cy can reassess soon our broader concept in the Middle East settlement, including ideas of demilitarization and regional economic development. We want to be sure that we are doing enough in these areas. I would like to be involved in this.

I know that you have an appointment now with Walter Cronkite.7 This is very important because it allows the American people to see what Jordan stands for. I am very grateful to you for coming, and I hope you feel that there is a better chance for peace than there has been in a long time. I am determined that we will use our good offices to their fullest if we see the chance for a settlement. When you go back to your country, if you have some advice or counsel or suggestions for me, don’t hesitate to let me know directly, and I’ll do the same. This has been very beneficial to me. Next you will probably be seeing Secretary Vance in Jordan again after I have met with other leaders.

King Hussein: I am planning to send Abdul Hamid Sharaf to see President Asad before your meeting with him. Concerning our economic plans, our best asset is our human resources. We are doing all that we can and we are hopeful. I am also extremely grateful for your help and for the opportunity to meet you.

President: Your visit here has given me a chance to explain to the American people the friendship that we feel for Jordan.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Subject File, Box 66, Peace Negotiations 1977 Vol. I [I]. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Cabinet Room.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 30.
  3. See footnote 17, Document 3.
  4. King Faisal was assassinated on March 25, 1975, by his half-brother’s son Faisal bin Musa’id.
  5. Cobras were military attack helicopters.
  6. No memorandum of conversation has been found, but an April 22 information memorandum including talking points for Brown to use at the meeting is in the Washington National Records Center, OSD Files, FRC 330–80–0017, J–K 1977.
  7. Walter Cronkite was a CBS Evening News anchor from 1962.