1973 U.S. Cable on Mideast Mirrors Current Events

Henry A. Kissinger, left, is seen with President Richard M. Nixon after being sworn in as secretary of state in 1973.
Henry A. Kissinger, left, is seen with President Richard M. Nixon after being sworn in as secretary of state in 1973. (Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

A March 1973 State Department cable released yesterday by the National Archives recounts a promise by Saudi Arabia's King Faisal that terrorist threats to U.S. interests could be resolved as soon as Washington pressed Israel to withdraw from territory it had seized.

The cable is one of 10,000 Nixon administration documents that were disclosed for the first time, including some related to terrorism and Middle East policymaking that illustrate how little has changed in more than 30 years.

On March 1, 1973, eight terrorists representing the Black September Organization, a Palestinian group with ties to Yasser Arafat and his Fatah political party, had seized the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, during a reception for the departing U.S. deputy chief of mission.

Diplomats, including the U.S. and Saudi ambassadors, were taken hostage, and demands were made for the release of Palestinian guerrillas held in various countries, including Israel. In the end, the two U.S. diplomats and a Belgian diplomat were killed, after which the terrorists surrendered to Sudanese officials. Two were immediately released, and after a trial, the six others were turned over to Arafat's organization.

The March 14 State Department cable describes a conversation in which then-U.S. Ambassador Nicholas G. Thacher warned the Saudi monarch of the danger to his country from Fatah, and passed along evidence that it was directly involved in the attack.

"Khartoum assassination may well have been aimed at dissipating hopeful reaction stimulated by recent talks in Washington" between the Israeli prime minister and the Jordanian king, Thacher reported, according to the cable. Faisal was then told that "terrorists were seizing the initiative, blackening Arab images through the world, seriously damaging the Palestinian cause."

In response, Faisal said that his country opposed the kind of violent excesses that had occurred in Khartoum and had stopped all aid to Fatah "until assurances were received that Fatah would cleanse itself of bad ideas and practices." But the Saudis said they would not announce that publicly because "our Palestinian brothers would attack us with much bitterness."

Faisal then said, according to the cable: "Our U.S. friends must begin to put real pressure on Israel to withdraw from Arab territories which it occupies. Once there is progress in that direction, then the way will be open to resolving all problems of the area, including that of terrorism."

In January 1974, with the Watergate scandal making headlines, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat wrote in a secret letter to Faisal that President Richard M. Nixon "could easily be impeached" and that "Arabs must do everything they can to strengthen" Nixon, according to a State Department cable included in yesterday's disclosure.

Addressed to then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger from then-U.S. Ambassador in Riyadh James Adkins, the cable said a senior Saudi official had read Adkins the letter and noted that "the king and Sadat would both be angry if they found out."

Sadat said one measure that might be taken was to end an oil boycott that Arab countries had imposed on nations that supported Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. In November 1973, the boycott forced Nixon to impose price and marketing allocation controls on oil products. As Sadat noted in his letter, there was "economic dislocation in the U.S." after the price of a barrel of oil on the world market had risen from about $5 to a level then considered very high: $16.

"The one thing they could do which would be most effective," Sadat wrote Faisal, "would be to assure the president that the [oil] boycott would be lifted as soon as disengagement [with Israel forces] could be accomplished." Kissinger traveled to the Middle East in February 1974, and the boycott was lifted the following month.

Another reflection of current events is found in a June 7, 1972, memo to Kissinger, then Nixon's national security adviser. It records a message from Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at the time the shah of Iran, who sought to organize a U.S. meeting with two Kurdish officials pursuing guerrilla action against Iraq. Months earlier, Iraq's Baath Party had signed a friendship pact with the Soviet Union and began receiving Soviet arms.

"The Shah believes the Kurds should be protected from Communist influence and prevented from following the same policies as those of the Iraqi government," the memo says. One of the Kurdish emissaries was Idris Barzani, father of Nechervan Idris Barzani, the current prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The CIA supported the Kurds until 1975, when both the shah and Washington withdrew aid and the Iraqis crushed the rebellion.

Separately, the documents also record lobbying by FBI officials in 1973 for the appointment of then-Deputy Director W. Mark Felt as the agency's chief. Felt was hailed in letters the agents sent to the White House, but Nixon did not pick him. He acknowledged in 2005 that he was a key source for revelations in The Washington Post about Watergate.

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