US struggles in bid to regain Arab trust. Jordan's King to visit US only if it backs peace conference
King Hussein, still angry with the United States over its secret sale of arms to Iran, may decline a recently extended invitation to visit Washington, according to a senior Jordanian official. The King's reluctance illustrates the problems facing the Reagan administration as it seeks to restore its credibility with moderate Arab leaders, Jordanian officials and Western diplomats say.
Officials in Jordan and Egypt, the two states regarded as key to restarting a Middle East peace process, now say they no longer trust US diplomatic initiatives in the region. The Egyptians are more conciliatory than the Jordanians, who seem to view the US deal with Iran as an almost personal betrayal.
Prime Minister Zaid Rifai said in an interview with the Monitor that the King will go to Washington only if the US makes new proposals for convening an international peace conference. Israel and the US are reluctant to hold such a conference, which the Arabs see as the only forum for negotiating an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Mr. Rifai curtly dismissed as ``not good enough'' US assurances that the option of a peace conference is being explored with interest by an administration convinced it needs a new Mideast policy. Jordan needs a clear US commitment to the principle of calling such a meeting before it can believe the US administration is sincere about pursuing Mideast peace, said Rifai, who is to scheduled to visit Washington next week.
``The US has a lot of work to do if it really wants to limit the damage and regain some of the credibility that was lost,'' Rifai said. ``Nobody accepts words and promises anymore. We've reached a point where only actions are judged, and we're not seeing much action.''
His talks with US officials next week will cover a range of subjects, Rifai said, including the administration's decision to ask for reduced aid to Jordan in the 1988 budget and the extent of US support for Jordan's development program for the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Ultimately, he said, the US's flexibility on convening an international conference will probably determine whether Hussein believes a visit is warranted.
Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and the Palestine Liberation Organization want an international conference composed of the parties to the conflict and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. They want a conference that will grant powers to the plenum to participate in negotiations between Israel and each of its neighbors.
The US says that if a conference is held, only states with diplomatic relations with Israel may participate and the conference should serve only as a curtain raiser for direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, with Palestinians represented in the Jordanian team.
Israel's leadership is divided on the issue. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejects a conference as a venue for negotiations; Foreign Minister Shimon Peres supports the kind of conference the US is considering.
Western diplomats in Amman say Jordan is now so suspicious of US policy in the region that it is stiffening its concept of what type of conference should be held. If Jordan's position does not soften, the diplomats warn, it is possible the US may decide to shelve diplomatic initiatives in the area for the last two years of Reagan's presidency.
``The Jordanians right now think they can make the administration pay for Irangate. They are asking more than the other major parties are willing to do,'' says a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition that he not be named. ``If they keep this up during the Rifai visit to Washington, it will knock them right off the agenda.''
The tension evident in US-Jordanian relations since the Iran-arms deal broke last November is understandable, diplomats here say. There already were strains last year when the administration shelved a Jordanian request to buy arms it wanted to upgrade its undersupplied Army. Faced with congressional opposition, the White House decided not to fight for it.
Jordan is vulnerable to Arab criticism because it is the most openly pro-American Arab state besides Egypt. Jordan has unequivocally supported Iraq since the Persian Gulf war began. It was deeply embarrassed to learn that the US, with Israel's help, had supplied arms to Iran - a state Jordan views as a threat not only to Jordan but to the rest of the Arab world.
``It was the deception, the double dealing,'' a Jordanian official says. ``Four days before the scandal became public, we had a very high-ranking American delegation briefing his majesty for 2 hours on the so-called Operation Staunch [the US State Department's effort to persuade governments not to sell arms to Iran that went on while the US itself sold arms]. They were seeking our cooperation. We had mentioned to them [rumors] about the Israelis [selling] arms and they had always denied it.''
Rifai's sense of bitterness was echoed by another senior Jordanian official who spoke to the Monitor yesterday.
``It is very difficult to be a friend and an ally of the United States now,'' said Gen. Zaid Bin Shaker, commander in chief of Jordan's armed forces, in a rare on-the-record interview.
``We would like to be close to the United States,'' the soft-spoken general said. ``We train our officers in the United States. Ninety percent of our equipment is from the United States.''
But the United States, General Ben Shaker said, has consistently reduced military aid to Jordan and refused to sell it modernizing equipment. As a result, he said, ``we have now to look for alternatives. Obviously, our alternative is Western Europe.''
Jordan is seeking to buy a new air defense system from either France or Britain, he said, and may even decide to buy one from the Soviet Union. He noted that the same mobile Hawk anti-aircraft units Jordan sought unsuccessfully to buy from the US were later sold to Iran.