Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

OIL WARS - a brief history

Written for peace movement use, around the time of the Iraq invasion


Western powers have waged wars in the Middle East for centuries. Partly, this is because the region is crucial to land and sea routes to and from Europe. Recently, the biggest issue is oil. The Arabian peninsula is the main source of the world's oil. The six Gulf emirates, Iran and Iraq control 65% of the world's oil reserves. Western powers have staged wars, coups and invasions to seize control of this important resource.

In 1951, an Iranian nationalist government, led by Mossadeq, tried to nationalise the mainly British company which controlled oil production in Iran. The American C.I.A. engineered a coup to overthrow Mossadeq and installed one of the most repressive regimes in the world instead. In 1956, the Egyptian government nationalised the Suez Canal, which controls oil transportation to the west. The British government responded by bombing Egypt. In this case, they were unsuccessful, partly because the American and Russian states, for their own reasons, opposed the war.

In 1958, the nationalist General Qassem led a successful coup against the pro-western Iraqi monarchy. The new regime nationalised Iraq's oil reserves. In 1963 the regime was overthrown, probably with C.I.A. support. The Saddam Hussein regime resulted indirectly from this coup.

In 1979, the U.S.'s preferred leader, the Shah, was overthrown in Iran. After a secret conference in the Caribbean, Ayatollah Khomeini was set up by the west as the leader of the Iranian opposition. He proceeded to slaughter other dissidents and set up another repressive regime. The west has since then played a complex game with Iran, periodically boycotting Iranian oil and attempting an unsuccessful military attack during the hostage crisis, while also giving Iran I.M.F. and World Bank loans and allowing continued business with the regime through loopholes. U.S. sanctions, though loosely enforced, have only succeeded in allowing French companies to take over the Iranian oil market.

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, western leaders took the position of peacemakers, because they did not want the oil trade in the Persian Gulf disrupted. This should not fool people into trusting them, however: western companies sold arms to both sides throughout the conflict, and in 1987 U.S. forces "accidentally" shot down an Iranian aeroplane over the Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew.

In 1990, the American state engineered a crisis to provide a pretext to attack Iraq. Having set Saddam Hussein up as a regional strongman, they wanted to cut him down to size. After the official war had finished, U.S. and British forces continued sanctions and military attacks against Iraq.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there have also been bombings against Libya and the Sudan, a failed attempt to invade Somalia and a U.S. intervention in the Lebanon.

America has also sealed semi-permanent agreements with several Arab states to permanently station forces in the area, using independent states as military bases or semi-colonies. Since the Gulf War, America has used every pseudo-crisis as an excuse to increase troop numbers. In 2000, there were already 26,000 American troops, 30 warships and 325 aircraft in the Gulf, along with 2,500 British troops, 6 aircraft and an aircraft carrier. These troops are positioned in oil-rich but underpopulated countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as a permanent threat against more populous and impoverished countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Many of the area's regimes are unpopular dictatorships which are dependent on American arms to remain in power. In just two years from 1992-3, $28bn. of weapons were sold by America in the Gulf, and billions more were given in tied military aid to pliant regimes such as Egypt and Israel.

Western governments may be afraid that Middle Eastern regimes will engage in a larger version of the attempts made in the 1970s to increase oil prices and extract political concessions by controlling the flow of oil to the west and weakening the grasp on it by western companies. Any sign of independent action, whether by local populations or desperate dictators, is a threat to western control. As a result, the west - mainly the U.S. state - has turned the Middle East into a giant armed camp to repress its own population and any recalcitrant regimes. It is no coincidence that so many of the so-called "terrorist" or "rogue" states - Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan - are in or near the Gulf.


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