23. Minutes of a Special Coordination Committee Meeting1


  • Middle East Security Issues


  • State

    • Secretary Cyrus Vance
    • Harold Saunders, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs
  • OSD

    • Secretary Harold Brown
    • David McGiffert, Assistant Secretary, International Security Affairs
  • JCS

    • General David Jones
    • Lt. General William Smith
  • Energy

    • Secretary James Schlesinger
    • Harry Bergold, Assistant Secretary, International Affairs
  • DCI

    • Frank Carlucci, Deputy Director
    • Robert Ames, NIO for Near East and South Asia
  • White House

    • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski
    • David Aaron
  • NSC

    • William Quandt
    • Fritz Ermarth
    • Sam Hoskinson
  • ACDA

    • Spurgeon Keeny, Deputy Director
    • Alan Platt, Acting Assistant Director, Weapons Evaluation and Control


Dr. Brzezinski This should be a short meeting, primarily for planning and organization of further efforts to work on the problem of Middle East security. We need to focus on how to proceed with the broader problem of protecting our interests in the Middle East. We also have the more immediate problem of how to deal with the Saudi decision on the F–5s and the growing polarization in the Arab world resulting from the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Specifically, the President has signed a letter to King Khalid which we want to look at. (S)

[Page 71]

I’d like to go back to the President’s instructions to Secretary Brown last February.2 In his letter of instructions he called for a comprehensive effort to develop an integrated strategy for regional security, with the United States making an important military and political contribution. There are several elements to this strategy. One was the continued American commitment to work for an Egyptian-Israeli peace. Harold Brown was also to discuss new forms of collaboration on security—intelligence sharing, contingency planning, and possibly an increased US military presence in the area. We were also supposed to consider ways of countering radical influences in the area. After Secretary Brown returned, we hoped to amplify on what he had accomplished, but events have inhibited further developments along these lines. There have been some consultations, but we have had primarily political problems in carrying out our strategy. (S)

Secretary Vance I talked to Sharaf (Jordanian Royal Court advisor). The Jordanians are already doing joint planning with the Saudis. (S)

Secretary Brown The Jordanians want us to consider ways of providing airlift support to them. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski I propose that we deal first with the F–5 problem. Then we should discuss the broader issues, such as the threats to our interests in the region, and our constraints on responding. We can also discuss the nature of our military presence in the area. I would like to use this discussion to set up a program for further meetings. Defense has been doing some planning, and we need to provide that with some political framework. I would suggest that Defense hold a PRC meeting, and that the State also chair one. We should work out the agendas. (S)

On our letter to King Khalid, we have received word that the Saudis may renege on their commitment to finance the F–5s for Egypt. Foreign Minister Saud has told us this. We have recommended to the President that he write to King Khalid. There are some signs that the King has not made his final decision. I understand that there are some reservations about this letter. (S)

Secretary Vance When I first heard about this, I sent a cable to Saud in Morocco and urged him not to take any further action in public.3 He hasn’t yet responded. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Let me read the letter. (He reads the text of the signed letter from President Carter to King Khalid.) The question you should consider is to send this or not. Let’s not try to edit the letter.4 (S)

[Page 72]

Secretary Vance Sadat made another blast at the Saudis today, and he included lots of other countries as well. (C)

Mr. Saunders At the mini-SCC meeting this morning5 there was concern expressed that we get a reply from Saud first. If we write directly to Khalid, this ensures that we will get a negative reply. Khalid is probably the most anti-Egyptian of all the top Saudi leaders. Sultan and Fahd may be more willing to reconsider and it may be better to go to Sultan to discuss the F–5 problem, and just to raise the broader issues with Khalid. These two approaches could go in parallel. We already have a letter from Sultan to General Graves which arrived on April 27. It discusses the terms of financing the sale. (S)

Secretary Brown We could pursue the issue as a financial matter. Sultan might still say no. (S)

Mr. Saunders We could acknowledge that the deal may be off, and express our regret, but then go on to discuss the arrangements. (S)

Secretary Vance There is a danger that unless we respond quickly, Saud may make some public statement in Morocco. The President got a personal assurance from King Khalid on this. This is a matter of a personal commitment.6 (S)

Dr. Brzezinski I agree with Secretary Vance. This will probably leak, and we will be asked what we are doing. There is a danger of a Congressional reaction that could threaten the F–15 program for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait has already threatened to remove its deposits. (S)

Mr. Quandt If possible, we should try to await the Saudi response to our original demarche. If Saud says that the issue is still open, then the letter to Khalid would be unnecessary. If Saud is negative, then the letter should be sent. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski That raises the danger of getting two nos from Saud and then going over his head. (S)

Mr. McGiffert We have a real problem of financing. Egypt may turn down the package in any case, and then we would be making a major issue over nothing at all. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski It would be better if Egypt were to cancel the project, but not in reaction to the Saudi decision. (S)

Mr. McGiffert We need to go to the Egyptians quickly to find out their reaction. (S)

[Page 73]

Secretary Vance I hate to think of a Congressional reaction if this falls apart. (S)

Secretary Brown It will be worse if the Egyptians cancel, because then Congress will be mad at both the Egyptians and the Saudis. (S)

Secretary Schlesinger I am impressed by what Cy has said. We need to remind the Saudis of their commitment. I am normally reluctant to appeal a decision if we are likely to get a no. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski We could use the upcoming meeting between King Hussein7 and King Khalid in Morocco. But there is already risk that the news will leak before that. We could combine this letter to Khalid with a letter from Secretary Brown to Sultan which starts with the assumption that the deal is still on track. (S)

Secretary Vance They will have to conclude that we take this very seriously if we proceed along that course. (S)

Mr. Saunders It sounds a little too much as if we cared only about Saudi money for Egypt. We should express ourselves more clearly on our concern over the split between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski We could put some of that into the Brown letter. (S)

Secretary Vance I already said some of that to Saud. (S)

Secretary Brown Sultan has the biggest stake in all of this and he may be helpful. We can strike a more conciliatory tone with him. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski It is a political fact that a strong Congressional reaction will hurt the F–15 deal. (S)

Secretary Brown I told them that public support was essential if we were to maintain our relationship. (C)

Secretary Vance I think we should go ahead with the letter, and I agree that Secretary Brown should write to Sultan as well. (S)

Secretary Brown That will mean that we have made three demarches to our counterparts. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski We should do this because it is an important matter on which to draw the line. Let’s go ahead with the letters to Khalid and to Sultan.8 (S)

On the larger issues, we should discuss the main threats to the security of the region, some of the recent trends, the political constraints on us, and the nature of our military presence in the area. (S)

They didn’t specifically ask for Secretary Vance I think it is clear that the basic sources of instability are the Arab-Israeli conflict, plus inter-Arab tensions. There is also the [Page 74] Palestinian problem, and the basic disparity of wealth in the region. This provides potential for others to exploit the situation. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Do you think the Saudis see the threat this way? (S)

Secretary Vance They see it, but they don’t agree with us on how to handle it. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski I think the Saudis see the external threat as greater than the internal one, and Israel is not their main concern. (S)

Secretary Brown But they saw the situation in Iran where the regime fell for internal reasons, not external ones. The internal situation in Saudi Arabia is closely connected to developments between Arabs and Israelis. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski The Saudis seem more confident that they can handle problems inside their country. The threat comes from outside. (S)

Secretary Vance There is some posturing in all of this. I think they are really less confident than they appear to be, particularly at the level of technicians. (S)

Mr. Carlucci We don’t see the social ferment within Saudi Arabia as a current problem. There is relative stability. There is some problem of subversion, particularly with 130,000 Palestinians in the country. We don’t know too much about the military. (S)

Secretary Vance I’m not sure that the Saudis are so confident that they can manage their external problems and their internal ones both. (S)

Secretary Brown But the external concern stems not from the Soviet threat, but from other Arabs. (S)

Secretary Schlesinger I agree with Zbig. They’re afraid of external pressures, and they have lost confidence in the United States. We couldn’t do everything that they wanted us to do. The effect has been that the Saudis are turning elsewhere for protection, including the Soviet Union and the radical Arabs. There is the increasingly important role of Iraq. The Saudis won’t turn around on this until they see a US military presence in the area to deter these threats. (S)

Mr. Carlucci There is the question on whether they want a physical military presence. (S)

Secretary Schlesinger They want it, but not in Saudi Arabia. (S)

Secretary Brown They feel that the domestic irritant that would come from a military presence in that country outweighs the security game. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski What about a naval presence as a possibility? (S)

Secretary Brown Whenever the Saudis have wanted our help they haven’t asked for carriers. They have asked for F–15s and AWACS. The naval presence is not what they think of first. (S)

[Page 75]

Dr. Brzezinski I disagree. They didn’t specifically ask for AWACS or for carriers. But they were impressed by both when we offered them. The naval presence did impress them during the Yemen crisis, and it impressed others.9 (S)

Secretary Brown I’m not decrying the value of a naval presence, but it is not a substitute for other things. (S)

Secretary Schlesinger But we have to develop this capability. A local display of American power is necessary. They feel it in their bones. They can’t articulate what they want, but they have to see that we have the capacity to protect them. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Defense has already had some consultations with the Saudis. What is the status of work on military presence? (S)

Secretary Brown We have a long list of alternatives. We could strengthen the Mid East force which now consists of three ships. We could have more frequent visits of the carrier task forces to the area, or we could have the non-carrier components of a task force remain in the Arabian sea. The other sea-based presence would involve a helicopter carrier and marines. In each case, this would require some draw-down of our forces committed to Europe or Japan. (S)

We could also ask the Saudis and Egyptians about preparing bases in their countries for uses in certain contingencies. This would involve some pre-positioning of equipment. Sadat does not want any American bases in his country, but in an emergency, we might be able to move in. So we have something of an opening to work with. (S)

Secretary Vance Sadat would not let us have bases, but he would allow us to fix up facilities there, if we would pay for it. He has talked about Berenice on the Red Sea. (S)

Secretary Brown We’ll make recommendations at the meeting of the PRC.10 We are now having consultations with the Saudis. General Lawrence is there now.11 We’ve seen some of their contingency plans, and there is still a lot of work to be done. The United States and Egypt have also talked about joint strategies, and we have discussed some contingencies. They have implied that they would allow us to bring things in quickly in some contingencies. The Jordanians have also asked for airlift support for their contingency operations in Saudi Arabia. All these discussions have been on a conceptual level. With the Jordanians, the joint committee has evolved toward a planning exercise. So there has been some movement since my visit in February. (S)

[Page 76]

Dr. Brzezinski Have Oman and the UAE been discussed? (S)

Secretary Brown Oman has been discussed with the Saudis. We’ve also had some air exercises with the Omanis. (S)

Secretary Vance We need to get CIA to evaluate the reaction of the Saudis and others to a permanent US military presence in the area. We need to have them look at different kinds of forces, not just a naval presence. This should be done for the PRC. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Let’s look at bases, port calls, airfields, staging arrangements, task force presence, with and without embarked marines. (S)

Secretary Brown We need to look at not only the Saudi response, but also possible Soviet counter reactions. (S)

General Jones The JCS has developed lots of options. (C)

Dr. Brzezinski The first PRC should be chaired by State. CIA should prepare a report for that meeting, and State should work on the broader strategy. We need to assess the effect of our plans on our relations with the countries of the area. We need a political strategy for carrying this out. (S)

Secretary Brown We all see Iraq as a local power with more importance now that Iran has fallen. We need to review our relations with Iraq. (S)

Secretary Vance We’ve been trying. I’ve gotten some reports on Iraq. They are changing their positions, but they are cautious with us. (S)

Secretary Brown We don’t need to discuss so much the modalities of our relations with Iraq, but where we want things to come out. (S)

Secretary Vance I would like to see us resume normal diplomatic relations if possible. (C)

Secretary Brown But what do we want the power relationship, and the political relationship, to be between Saudi Arabia and Iraq in a couple of years? The Saudis see that Iraq might move in a more moderate direction. (S)

Mr. Carlucci There is also a possible threat to the Saudis from Iran. (S)

Secretary Vance We also need to look at the consequences of Iraqi-Syrian affiliation. The Jordanians see some movement in that direction. (S)

Mr. Carlucci They’re doing some joint military planning. (S)

Secretary Vance Sharaf tells me that the Iraqi-Syrian arrangements are going quite far. (S)

Mr. Carlucci CIA will do an update on this. (S)

I think we should have two Dr. Brzezinski The agenda for the PRC meeting under State’s chairmanship should include the following items: an intelligence assessment [Page 77] of the reactions to different kinds of American military presence in the area. This should focus on the regional parties as well as the Soviets. They should look at Iraq’s role, to see if there is some openings in our relations, and we should also look at the Iraqi-Syrian relationship. We should review the recent PRC on Saudi Arabia to see if this decision still stands.12 Finally, we should outline a political strategy to enhance our security consultations with the countries of the area. (S)

Secretary Vance Let’s define the region. We’ve been talking about the Gulf. But should we include Iran and Turkey? If we are concerned with broad regional problems, Turkey and Iran should be included. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski I think we should focus on the Gulf and Iran. (S)

Secretary Brown From a military point of view, the Gulf and Turkey are not much related. (S)

Secretary Vance Let’s define the area as the Gulf, including Iran and Egypt, but not Turkey. Sudan may be part of Egypt’s security problem also. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Mostly we should look at the Arabian peninsula and Iran. (S)

Secretary Vance What about Ethiopia and Somalia? (C)

Secretary Brown They are also important. (C)

Dr. Brzezinski We should look at our policy towards Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, and see some of the others as possible problems in the area. (S)

Secretary Vance I would like to wait until after I return on June 313 to have these PRC meetings. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Over the longer term, what we are talking about is an increasing American role in the area which recognizes it as vital to our national interests. (S)

Secretary Brown We’ve been acting as if we don’t need a big presence in the area. First the British were there, and then the Iranians seemed strong. Now both are gone. So we may need to review our assumptions. (S)

Secretary Vance I’m not sure yet. (C)

Secretary Brown But we need to look at the problem. (C)

Dr. Brzezinski We’re already beginning to see the Gulf as a vital region. (C)

Secretary Vance Let’s have the meetings in the week of June 3. (S)

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Dr. Brzezinski I think we should have two in a row that week. (S)

Secretary Vance We also need to talk about how to stop Sadat from sounding off against the other Arabs. (S)

Dr. Brzezinski Maybe the President should call him. (C)

Secretary Vance Let me think about that. I’ll talk to you this afternoon. (C)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Defense/Security, Ermarth, Box 5, Middle East Security Planning: 5–6/19/79. Secret. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. The Summary of Conclusions of this meeting is printed as Document 192.
  2. See Document 19.
  3. Telegram 116140 to Rabat, May 8. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840133–1743)
  4. The letter was transmitted to the Embassy in Jidda on May 11; see footnote 4, Document 192.
  5. The Summary of Conclusions of this meeting is printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, August 1978–December 1980, Document 253.
  6. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, August 1978–December 1980, Document 248.
  7. An unknown hand circled the name “Hussein,” drew a line from the circled name to the space between the paragraphs, and wrote “Hassan.”
  8. Reference is to a letter to Sultan from Brown; see footnote 4, Document 192.
  9. See Document 271.
  10. See Document 26.
  11. See Document 284.
  12. See Document 190.
  13. Reference is to Vance’s upcoming travel to the United Kingdom, Egypt, Israel, Italy, the Vatican, the Netherlands, and Spain May 20–June 2.