Middle East

BP's Other Disaster (continued)


This is the second segment of a two-part article by Joseph Kirschke. Part one can be read here.

The birth of a revolution

In the late 1970s, it was apparent that further efforts by the shah to improve the economy were not working. A poorly managed attempt by the shah to shore up the economy through construction and industrialization efforts, lowered taxes and an expanded health system had faltered badly amid inflation, corruption and fundamental economic inequities. The new presence of more than 40,000 Americans in business, educational and military—coupled with increased SAVAK repression—proved counterproductive in underlining feelings that Iran's core religious beliefs were under siege.

Further unrest came to a head on September 7, 1978 when the government imposed curfews in the capital and 11 other major cities. September 8 became "Black Friday" after security forces mowed down dozens of protesters in Jaleh Square in Tehran. Shortly after, the ayatollah, who had been living in exile in Baghdad, was expelled by the Iraqi government for his refusal to stop his propaganda efforts.

After his arrival in France that year, the ayatollah immediately enjoyed a place in the celebrity spotlight among Iranians through the international press corps that burnished his image in ways he may not have expected. And on January 16, 1979, after recognizing the futility of his position and negotiating an interim government, the shah left the country for what he said was a short holiday. He didn't return.

To Washington, it was a completely unexpected turn of events. To Iranians, it was cause for celebration. Jubilant crowds thronged streets in cities across the country.

A period of relative chaos reigned before Khomeini established his "Revolutionary Council" composed of his close clerical allies. Khomeini characterized himself as a "Champion of Islamic Revival" and initially did not have relations with Western or Soviet bloc nations, instead articulating the need for the Islamic world to become a unified power unto itself.

Although he voiced support for the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights while in exile, once in power the imam oversaw sweeping repression. Mass executions of the shah's generals and SAVAK agents took place while Khomeini established what is now known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite religious military force that reported directly to Iran's ruling clerics to keep leftist militias in check while keeping an eye on the regular armed forces.

In addition, members of "Revolutionary Committees" imposed arbitrary arrests, searches and confiscations. Sharia law through dress codes and behaviors were similarly instituted by "Mobile Units of God's Vengeance." In fact, so pious was Khomeini, according to a personal biographer, that he refused to patronize restaurants unless could be sure that the waiter who served him was a Muslim.

On November 4, 1979, a group of Islamist students would open another chapter in Iranian history when, with the blessings of their government, they overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 staff hostage. For the next 444 days at the "Den of Espionage" an international crisis begat an abortive rescue attempt many believe signaled the death knell of Jimmy Carter's presidency.

By the time Ronald Reagan succeeded him in 1980, any goodwill in Washington toward Tehran had long since evaporated.

But the revolution carried on. Khomeini's fanaticism, according to some, was reflected in the fact that loyalty to the Iranian state itself was, at times, deemed negligible by even the imam himself. "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah—for patriotism is another name for paganism," he said during a speech in 1980. "I say let this land burn; I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."

None of this went unnoticed next door in Baghdad.

The Iran-Iraq War

In 1979, after a series of coups, Iraq witnessed the political ascent of Saddam Hussein through the ranks of the Ba'ath Party to lead the Revolutionary Command Council. A staunch, Soviet-leaning Arab nationalist, Hussein had his own vision of a united Middle East—though one far different than that of his contemporaries in Tehran.

By the time the Iraq-Iran war was all over nearly eight years later, more than a trillion dollars would be wasted, some 1 million lives would be lost and two depleted nations would lie in tattered ruins.

But the violence in the Persian Gulf—a violence that continues to this day—was far from over. It was, rather, merely another grim milestone in the legacy of BP's Middle East-inspired exploits.
An unholy alliance

In June of 1982, Hussein was so taken aback by Iranian resilience that he proposed a truce that was, in turn, rejected out of hand by a stalwart Khomeini. As Iraq's military fortunes hung in the balance, the United States began to step in, supplying Baghdad with economic and military aid as well as satellite intelligence. The United States also extended to Baghdad billions of dollars in loans and, in 1982, over the objections from Congress, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from its list of countries that sponsored international terrorism.

In 1983, if there was any doubt, a National Security Directive was issued saying that the U.S. government would do "whatever was necessary and legal" to keep Iraq from losing the war. U.S. elite special forces provided counterinsurgency training for Iraqi troops in the event parts of Iraq were to be occupied by Iranian forces.

In December of that year, decades before he took on a radically different relationship with the Iraqi regime, envoy Donald Rumsfeld met with Hussein in a civilian capacity to assure him of U.S. backing on behalf of the Reagan administration. The two would meet again in March of 1984—the day U.N. officials reported that Iraqi forces used mustard gas against Iranian troops.

The United States grew remarkably muted when it came to international condemnation regarding Iraq's use of "weapons of mass destruction" against its Iranian battlefield opponents. The U.N. Security Council declared in March of 1986 that its members were "profoundly concerned by the unanimous conclusion of specialists that chemical weapons on many occasions have been used by Iraqi forces against Iranian troops."

Between 1985 and 1989, according to an investigation by former Michigan Democratic Senator Donald Riegle, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta sent the Iraqis 14 agents with "biological warfare significance" including West Nile virus.

The United States stood alone in being the only member of the Council to not "condemn this use of chemical weapons in clear violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which prohibits the use in war of chemical weapons."

In the earlier parts of the war, it was well known among intelligence circles that Iraq was likely moving toward pursuing a nuclear weapon. In a June 1983 Directorate of Intelligence Appraisal, the CIA had not identified a nuclear program, but noted that Baghdad "has made a few moves which could take it in that direction."

Indeed, while dozens of countries, European ones in particular, would support Baghdad, it was help from Washington, fearful of an Islamic revolution across the Persian Gulf, that tipped the balance.

Almost inexplicably, Washington at one point found itself arming both sides in a bid to maintain a balance of power in the region. But after a leak from inside the Iranian government, Reagan was forced to shift closer to Iraq for fear of losing its Arab allies.

The resources spent on the war, according to Ruth Leger Sivard in "World Military and Social Expenditures" would exceed the cost of what the entire developing would spend on healthcare over the course of a decade.

The Persian Gulf War

After the fight with Tehran ended in a ceasefire in 1988, the Iraqi economy was in shambles and deeply in debt to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, whose leaders held Saddam's coat as he fought off the Iranians. Now they were refusing to forgive these debts.

Further, Saddam accused the emirs of Kuwait and the royals of the Saudi Kingdom of driving down the price of oil by exceeding their OPEC quotas—which, he claimed, also made it difficult for Iraq to jump-start its economy. He further blamed the Kuwaitis for drilling across the border into the Rumalia, one of its biggest oil fields.

The U.S. Naval fleet in the Persian Gulf was placed on high alert after CIA intelligence indicated that some 30,000 Iraqi troops had massed along the border with Kuwait. Still, "we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts," U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Hussein in a meeting two days later, before talks between Iraq and Kuwait broke down completely on July 31. On August 2, 1990 the Iraqi army poured into Kuwait and quickly overwhelmed local resistance.

Within days of the invasion, the international community voiced a nearly unanimous condemnation through a U.N. Security Council Resolution, and sanctions were imposed. Then-President George H.W. Bush asserted that the invasion "will not stand."

"Operation Desert Storm" began with a wide-ranging air campaign with the goal of neutralizing Iraq's air force and air defenses after Bush assembled an international coalition of more than 500,000 troops from more than 30 countries to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Among the casualties at the end of the fighting were more than 300 coalition troops and untold thousands of Iraqi soldiers—among them, reportedly, units attempting to surrender. The war itself would cost $6.1 billion.

Many of the Iraqi troops looted much of Kuwaiti property, while others deliberately set fire to several hundred oil wells during their retreat. Blackening the skies above the desert, these fires did horrific environmental damage by the time they were extinguished by American engineers. On January 23, Iraq also dumped more than 300 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, there was considerable criticism of the Bush Administration for not having taken the fight to Baghdad. The White House, for its part, responded that the fragile coalition it had worked so hard to cobble together would have collapsed with disastrous results. The United States, it was noted, also worked hard enough to restrain Israel after Hussein launched a series of Scud missiles at it in a bid to rally the Arab world behind what he called his "mother of all battles."

In the immediate aftermath of the war, sanctions were maintained against the regime for what became the express purpose of overthrowing Saddam. Although the sanctions weakened the regime and its ability to project military power beyond its borders, it did not do much to dislodge Saddam. In fact, Hussein and the members of his inner circle were able to perversely profit, while maintaining their grip on power by illegally circumventing an U.N.-administered oil-for-food program.

The sanctions led to the deaths of untold thousands of Iraqis. The number of Iraqi children who died of malnutrition, disease and lack of access to good medical care during the sanctions regime ranges from a widely accepted 500,000 by UNICEF to 1.5 million, according to the Iraqis.

That year, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad Dennis Halliday resigned in objection to the sanctions regime, referring to it as "genocide." His successor, Jutta Burghardt, followed suit.

The Iraq War

"My fellow Americans," said then-President George W. Bush on March 19, 2003, "on my orders, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." He was heralding the beginning of Washington's latest and gravest regime change fiasco, and yet another chapter in BP's other disaster.

Iraq possesses the world's second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. It was in this bloodied environment that BP would find yet another place to stake its claim. In June of 2009, BP managed to secure a 20-year contract to develop Iraq's Rumalia oil field—the country's largest, and the same one Saddam accused the Kuwaitis of drilling in 1990. This represents the first major oil deal there since the 2003 invasion.

BP representatives have insisted that their terms with Baghdad are not easy—$1 per barrel under the current agreement, a fraction of that which will be allocated to the Iraqi government. Nonetheless, the opportunities are undeniably vast; some 960,000 barrels are being produced there—half of Iraq's total output as of last year.

In June, the strangest twist in BP's bloodstained Middle East history took place not in the Persian Gulf, but 2,900 miles away off the coast of Scotland. There, the troika of BP, U.S. and Iranian interests converged yet again—but in a most unlikely way.

It took place after the U.S. government issued sanctions against the Iranian Oil Company U.K. (IOC UK), which is currently engaged in a 50-50 joint venture with BP to develop a gas field off the Scottish coast. The U.S. ban couldn't have come at a worse time for BP—especially as its engineers and the Iranians are seeking to increase access to an area believed to possess 800 billion cubic feet of reserves.

The two companies have a lot to lose deep beneath the choppy waters of the North Sea. The so-called Rhum field already satisfies more than 10 percent of the United Kingdom's daily gas needs, and its operations, as of June, were reportedly worth $1 million per day.

That's not all. IOC UK also owns some $775 million in BP stock and has engaged it in a 50-50 joint venture in Azerbaijan. The operation has tapped 8.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas worth $2.4 billion annually. "BP remains one of the most active Western oil companies in joint energy ventures with the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum outside Iran," Time Magazine reported earlier this month.

The U.S. Treasury Department put it in starker terms. The designation of IOC UK for sanctions is a means to "highlight for the international community Iran's use of its financial sector, shipping industry and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to carry out and mask its proliferation activities," said a Treasury Department statement.

Things were different five years ago. In 2005, then-Chief Executive John Browne said, "To do business with Iran would be offensive to the United States and therefore be against BP's interests. We're very heavily influenced by our American position."

In the decades since his death, Mossadegh's popularity still resonates powerfully among the Iranian people. To this day, annual rallies are held to celebrate the nationalist's memory outside his estate. Recent legislation to abolish a holiday marking the nationalization of Iran's oil industry was met with abrupt, furious street protests.

Western spin, the same propaganda that proved so effective in removing Iran's first democratically elected leader 50 years ago, continues today in an eerie parallel to the damage in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP's public relations team has epitomized it of late through its use of only one word to characterize CIA and U.K. involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup.

They were merely, according to BP's website, "implicated."