Jordanian spells out strains with US. Army chief irked by US `no' to arms, failure to push Mideast peace talks
Jordanian officials were delivering a blunt message to the Reagan administration this week: King Hussein wants proof of the United States' seriousness about changing its Middle East policy before he agrees to visit Washington. The tough message from Prime Minister Zaid Rifai and Foreign Minister Taher Masri reflected the frustration and anger that have gripped Jordan since the Iran-arms scandal erupted last November.
Before leaving for Washington, Jordanian officials told American correspondents and diplomats in the region that the King is suspicious of the Reagan administration's renewed efforts to restart a Middle East peace process. The US is exploring the possibilities of convening an international peace conference and has invited both Mr. Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Washington for talks.
The Jordanians said that it may take a public commitment by President Reagan to an international peace conference to persuade them that the US is serious about pursuing what Jordan says is the only avenue open for reaching a negotiated settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
One indication of the depth of Jordanian anger was the granting of a rare, on-the-record interview by Gen. Zaid ben Shaker, commander in chief of the Jordanian Armed Forces, to the Monitor. General ben Shaker, considered the most powerful man in Jordan after Hussein, usually prefers to stay in the background. But in a lengthy conversation about Jordan's strategic posture, the general spoke repeatedly of the poor state of Jordanian-US relations.
``I feel that this country - our King and all of us - have tried very hard to be friendly to the United States and this good will has not been returned,'' ben Shaker said.
He feels ``very badly'' about the US involvment in selling arms covertly to Iran, the general said, and about the US refusal to sell weapons to Jordan as well as the Reagan administration's failure to aggressively pursue its own peace policy in the region. He said Jordan has decided to no longer seek weapons from the US and will instead buy arms from France and Britain, as well as consider buying some from the Soviet Union.
Jordan has been the only Arab state to fully and actively back Iraq in the war with Iran almost since it began in 1980. Hundreds of Iraqi-bound supply trucks are seen grinding along the highway from Jordan's Aqaba port to the Jordanian-Iraqi border every day. Ben Shaker said he views the militant, Shiite clerical regime in Iran as a long-term threat to Jordan and every other Mideast regime.
``This movement in Iran has really divided the Islamic faith between Sunnis and Shiites,'' ben Shaker said. ``The Iranians want not only for [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein to fall, but they want to install an Iranian-style government in Iraq. If that happens, Iran won't have to fight anymore, it can just export its beliefs to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait.''
Ben Shaker praised Iraq's troops as ``very brave'' but said he worries about Iraq's ability to keep up morale as the bloody war drags on and Iranian attacks continue to inflict heavy casualties on the Iraqis. He said he found it hard to believe that the US, with Israel's help, supplied both TOW antitank missiles and mobile Hawk anti-aircraft batteries to the Iranians.
``The arms sales have affected Iraq's execution of the war,'' ben Shaker said. ``There were two major items the Iraqis had superiority in - air and armor. So what did the [US] sell to Iran? Armor-piercing weapons and HAWKS - both weapons where the Iraqis were stronger.''
Ben Shaker expressed bitterness about the Reagan administration's decision last year to shelve a Jordanian request to buy, among other arms, kits to mobilize Jordan's own HAWK missile batteries.
``We want to defend our airspace,'' the general said. ``Israel has a great capability in the air. We cannot hope to defend ourselves without the ability to defend our territory. Now, Israel has the freedom to fly everywhere. Our HAWKS have been immobile since 1976. How long would it take the Israelis to take them out?''
Ben Shaker insisted that Jordan still regards Israel as ``our gravest threat.'' He said Jordan's apprehension that Israel might launch a war against it increased after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.
``The potential that Israel can attack Jordan - I can't rule it out,'' he said, although he stressed Jordan's willingness to seek a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Jordan, he said, needed to present a more credible system of defense before it could be taken seriously by Israel in peace negotiations.
``Why would you want to be weak and talk to your enemies from a position of weakness?'' the general asked rhetorically.
``The United States has made Israel the strongest country in this area. There is no military threat to Israel posed by any country in this region today. [Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad's theory of needing to deal with the Israelis from a position of strength is very credible, I think. His drive for parity with the Israelis is based on that and I would not criticize it. It is the only way to approach the Israelis. You want to be credible when you deal with them.''
Asked whether he could, as a military man, imagine the Israeli military sacrificing the strategic depth afforded Israel by its occupation of the West Bank, ben Shaker responded: ``When one wants peace, one must withdraw from territories captured by force.''
``One of many possible scenarios for peace is that there would be a demilitarized zone for the West Bank that could ensure Israel's security,'' he continued. ``There is no potential danger for Israel from any combination of Arab countries. The best security for any country is a friendly neighbor.''