37. Memorandum From the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Tarnoff) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • PRC Meeting, March 27

Attached is an agenda2 for the PRC meeting scheduled for March 27 on aspects of U.S. relations with Algeria and Morocco. Also attached is a discussion paper for the meeting. The Department would appreciate [Page 88] distribution of these documents to representatives of other agencies expected to participate in the PRC meeting.3

Peter Tarnoff 4
Executive Secretary


Paper Prepared in the Department of State 5

Discussion Paper for PRC Meeting

Tuesday, March 27, 3:00 p.m.

Morocco’s Value to the U.S.

Morocco is of value to us because of its strategic location, its key role as a backer of President Sadat within the Arab camp, and its support for African moderates.

Location: Morocco’s geographic position is of strategic importance because Morocco is a gateway to Africa and the Mediterranean for ships and aircraft coming from North America. We want continued access to Morocco’s ports and airfields for U.S. ships, including nuclear-powered vessels, and our military aircraft. One of VOA’s two African transmitters is located outside Tangier. The King has agreed in principle but is delaying further action on construction of an Air Force deep space surveillance station. The station must be placed in Morocco, Spain or Portugal to complete a worldwide network.

Middle East: Hassan continues to back Sadat even though there is domestic opposition to this policy and in spite of the costs in terms of loss of radical Arab support for Morocco’s position in the western Sahara. Hassan supports Sadat because he believes this is the best way to stem Soviet inroads in Africa and the Middle East. This support may be crucial as we and Sadat seek to dampen adverse Arab reaction to the Egypt/Israel agreement.

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Africa: Moroccan troops were vital in reestablishing Zairian government control in Shaba in 1977 and 1978. Morocco provides logistical support for both its troops and for the other African contingents. The King has expressed willingness to deploy his troops elsewhere in Africa to protect western interests.

Morocco in Difficulty

Serious economic problems have begun to undermine the national consensus which Hassan created by the Green March6 and his vigorous Saharan policies. Paradoxically Moroccans remain united in support of their government’s claim to sovereignty in the Sahara, but they blame the Sahara conflict for the economic problems they are encountering. The Government also is criticized by a populace which ignores Algeria’s superiority in military equipment for not striking at Polisario bases in Tindouf after the February attack on Tan Tan (50 miles within Morocco’s 1975 borders).7 Political opponents who benefited from liberalization measures the King implemented in the past three years have begun to criticize the monarch. Strikes and student protests are becoming more frequent.

Since the Tan Tan attack the Government has been forced to stop pretending that it has the military situation in the Sahara under control. Actually there has been no recent sharp deterioration in the situation on the ground. But the Polisario has fought the Moroccans to a stalemate. The guerrillas have established staging bases within the Sahara, and Moroccan control does not extend beyond urban centers. A critical lack of spare parts and hesitant leadership preclude vigorous counterinsurgency measures. A pro-Moroccan coup in Mauritania would make it more difficult for the Polisario to continue to use staging bases in the Mauritanian Sahara to mount attacks against Moroccan forces to the north. But the breakdown of the ceasefire between Mauritania and the Polisario would force the Moroccans to engage again in the active defense of Mauritania. Poor military morale reflects war weariness and frustration at not being able to strike at the Polisario’s sanctuaries in Algeria. Although Hassan has taken elaborate precautions to protect himself against a military coup, the possibility of one cannot be excluded.

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Unless the Saudis resume payment of the $500 million annual subsidy provided Morocco during the first two years of the Sahara conflict, the King will have to continue his unpopular austerity measures in the economic sphere and he will be unable to purchase new weapons for his army. It probably will be at least two years before retrenchment restores Morocco’s economic health.

The King feels beleaguered. With characteristic political skill he has turned the Tan Tan attack to his political advantage, forming a National Defense Committee and nominating to it the leader of the principal opposition group. But he recognizes this tactic offers only partial and momentary protection from the rising groundswell of domestic discontent. The King has a propensity for the dramatic which could lead him to decisions as dangerous as an attack on Tindouf, which could make his position ever more insecure.

The King feels let down by several of his more important foreign friends. Termination of the Saudi subsidy was a heavy blow. Payment problems have interrupted the flow of French weapons and spare parts. Hassan feels the U.S. has been particularly unhelpful. From his perspective our public rejection of his claims to sovereignty in the Sahara (which occurred in response to Congressional inquiries) undermined his diplomatic position. Moroccans feel that our refusal to sell them new weapons to use in the Sahara, while Soviet arms deliveries to the Algerians continue without interruption, has put them at an unfair disadvantage in Morocco’s struggle with the Polisario. As we look to Hassan for support on our Middle East policy, we find him full of resentment for our apparent insensitivity to his needs.

Stated below are several options which the U.S. could implement to take some of the current strain out of our relations with Morocco.

A. Sell the Moroccans Weapons to Defend the Sahara

The U.S. recognizes that Morocco shares responsibility for administrative control of the Sahara with Mauritania by virtue of the Madrid Accords. The U.S. does not recognize the claims of Morocco and Mauritania to sovereignty in the Sahara, and neither does any other nation. Apart from the British, who are not significant arms suppliers, the U.S. is Morocco’s only arms supplier to insist that the weapons it furnishes not be used to defend the Sahara. This U.S. position has been based on the provisions of the Arms Export Control Act which authorize U.S. sales only for legitimate self-defense and internal security. The U.S.-Moroccan Military Assistance Agreement of 1960, which implements the Act, limits uses of American-furnished weapons to the defense and internal security of the Kingdom of Morocco.

We have given our permission for the Moroccans to use U.S. weapons elsewhere, e.g., collective defense measures in Shaba, thus effec[Page 91]tively amending the bilateral. However, we have not been willing to amend the bilateral to authorize use of American weapons for the defense of the Sahara because Morocco is not only defending the territory but seeking to consolidate its claim to sovereignty in the territory.8 An interpretation of the relevant U.S. legislation that would allow use of American weapons to defend the Sahara would be subject to Congressional challenge. Some Members of Congress would oppose Moroccan use of American weapons to defend the Sahara on the grounds that (1) it would be inconsistent with U.S. support for Saharan self-determination; (2) that it would violate U.S. law; (3) it would involve the U.S. in an African conflict; and (4) it would damage U.S. relations with Algeria.9

The Moroccans probably are most interested in the OV–10 aircraft, six of which might be available on short notice. They also have said they want to purchase anti-tank helicopters. Supplying U.S. military equipment to Morocco would not be likely to end the military stalemate in the Sahara. Its principal benefit would be improved U.S.-Moroccan relations at this time. There is an outside chance that such a demonstration of U.S. support for Morocco might persuade the Algerians to negotiate a settlement.

B. Further Demarches

The U.S. has consistently counseled the Moroccans and Algerians to seek a negotiated settlement. We called the Algerians’ attention to the conciliatory tone of Moroccan Foreign Minister Boucetta’s February 1 letter suggesting bilateral negotiation.10 We also told the Algerians we thought Polisario attacks on Moroccan cities, e.g., Tan Tan, did not improve peace prospects. The Algerians’ discouraging response to Boucetta has been cited by Hassan as the reason he must search for other means, presumably military, to end the struggle in the Sahara.

We could repeat our demarches, perhaps escalating them to the Algerians by having the Secretary call in the Algerian Ambassador to urge reconsideration of Boucetta’s suggestion for negotiation. We could urge Hassan to be more patient and to tell him of our further approach [Page 92] to the Algerians. There is no reason not to try such demarches. But there is little reason to believe they would be effective, and Hassan would regard them as an inadequate U.S. response to his problems.

C. Economic Aid to Support a Settlement

More concrete U.S. support for a peaceful solution would be an American offer to provide economic assistance as part of a settlement formula. U.S. aid either could be extended to a Polisario state in the Mauritanian Sahara, or perhaps to a supranational entity created to provide assistance on a regional basis to all parties involved in the conflict. Congressional attitudes probably would be sympathetic but it is unlikely that a pledge of U.S. aid in itself would give much impetus to a peace process. Any such U.S. offer would have to be coordinated closely with the Moroccans to avoid misunderstanding.

D. U.S. Mediation

At one time or another, both Morocco and Algeria have asked us to mediate the Sahara dispute. However, what each state actually had in mind was U.S. pressure on its opponent, and neither appeared ready to make the concessions required for a compromise. We declined to mediate because the basis for agreement seemed absent, and because we thought it preferable to avoid superpower involvement. We also believed various Arab and African governments, as well as the French and the Spanish, were better qualified to serve as mediators.

We have given consistent support to the mediation efforts of others. Most recently, we encouraged President Nimeri to exercise the mandate given him by the OAU, and we voted for a UNGA resolution last fall supporting his efforts. We have told both the French and the Spanish we would collaborate diplomatically in any peace process they might be able to initiate. (The French have not been interested in our cooperation in their abortive efforts, and the Spanish never had been able to get an initiative underway.)

Mauritania’s new leaders obviously want an end to the war. They and the Polisario have participated in a de facto ceasefire since July 1978. However, the Mauritanians so far have been unwilling to negotiate a separate peace with the Polisario, realizing this would invite retaliation by their Moroccan allies. Boucetta’s February 1 letter to his Algerian counterpart suggested rescheduling of the summit meeting which Hassan and Boumediene were to have held at Brussels in September 1978 but had to be cancelled due to Boumediene’s illness. Bouteflika replied that there could be no discussion of a solution to the Sahara conflict without the Polisario, knowing the Moroccans would not agree to sit down with a movement they insist is an Algerian creation.

Hassan cannot abandon Morocco’s portion of the Sahara without grave risk to his throne. The Algerians say they will settle for any [Page 93] arrangement satisfactory to the Polisario. The latter, whose degree of independence from the Algerians is not clear, insist that they must have the entire western Sahara. Clearly the chances for successful mediation are slim. Any offer of mediation would give rise immediately to the question of the Polisario’s participation in the mediation process. Pressure on the Moroccans to deal with the Polisario would be strongly resented in Rabat.

Algerian Reaction

The Algerians would react negatively only to the option of permitting the Moroccans to use U.S. military equipment to defend the Sahara. No matter how qualified this permission, the Algerians would criticize our “abandonment of neutrality” and publicly claim that our action was motivated by our desire to guarantee Hassan’s support for our Mideast peace process efforts. If we gave Hassan unqualified permission to acquire American arms, the Algerians probably would discriminate against U.S. firms in the award of new construction and import contracts. The injury to our economic and commercial interests might be less if we permitted the Moroccans to acquire only new systems of a primarily defensive or transport nature, e.g., sensors or additional C–130s. Any change in U.S. policy on arms would put strain on our political relations with Algeria, which though never intimate, have been improving in recent months. A decision of this nature also could have an unwelcome influence on the foreign policy orientation of Algeria’s new government.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 74, PRC 098, 3/27/79, North Africa. Secret.
  2. The agenda is attached but not printed.
  3. Under a March 26 covering memorandum to Mondale, Vance, Blumenthal, Harold Brown, Kreps, Warnke, General Brown, and Turner, Dodson forwarded the agenda and discussion paper. (Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 74, PRC 098, 3/27/79, North Africa)
  4. Hughes signed for Tarnoff.
  5. Secret.
  6. In November 1975, the Moroccan Government organized a demonstration involving several hundred thousand Moroccans, who “marched” several miles into disputed territory in the Western Sahara, accompanied by thousands of Moroccan troops. For the U.S. reaction, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–9, Part 1, Documents on North Africa, 1973–1976, Documents 100109.
  7. In telegram 694 from Rabat, January 31, the Embassy reported on the January 28 Polisario attack on Tan Tan in southern Morocco. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790048–1209)
  8. Despite repeated American demarches, King Hassan has refused to withdraw U.S.-supplied F–5s from the Sahara. While we consider this use inconsistent with our bilateral arms agreement, the Moroccans say there is no inconsistency because they consider the Sahara Moroccan territory. [Footnote is in the original.]
  9. ACDA believes some in Congress also would object that furnishing arms for this purpose could cause other countries to doubt the significance the U.S. attaches to end use agreements. [Footnote is in the original.]
  10. Boucetta’s letter to Bouteflika was not found. In telegram 479 from Algiers, February 18, the Embassy commented on Bouteflika’s reply. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790078–0726)