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The seventh oil war
Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world

September 18, 2002
The Iranian

If and when it happens, an invasion of Iraq will be the seventh oil war in some 50 years. Wars are largely violent struggles for material and symbolic resources. They also demonstrate the failure of human imagination to find peaceful solutions to their problems. Resorting to war is easy. Peace building is difficult.

The first oil war happened when Iran nationalized its oil industry in 1951. Two and a half years of struggle led to an Anglo-American boycott of Iran's nationalized oil. In 1953, a CIA supported coup replaced a democratically elected government with the Shah's dictatorship.

In the meantime, the nationalist virus passed on from Iran to Egypt. In 1956 President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. An Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt ensued. But a Soviet-American opposition to that invasion led to the withdrawal of invading forces. It also led to the rise of Nasser's prestige in the Arab world.

The second oil war occurred in 1967 when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan pre-emptively invaded Israel. They were roundly defeated. Israel conquered the West Bank, Sinai, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem.

The third oil war came in 1973. Egypt's Anwar Sadat took Israel by surprise on Yom Kippur and made advances in the Sinai. However, the Israelis soon pushed back the Egyptian forces close to Cairo. Some lessons were learned by Egypt and Israel leading to the Camp David Accords of 1979. Egypt and Israel reached a peace treaty in which the latter withdrew from Sinai in return for the Egyptian recognition of Israel.

The fourth oil war began in 1979 with the Islamic revolution in Iran. Fearful of its spread to the rest of the region, Iraq with the support the West, Soviet Union, and the conservative Arab states invaded Iran. A bloody war ensued lasting for eight years from 1980 to 1988. Nearly 1 million were killed; another million were maimed. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid some $60 billion to support Iraq.

When a tanker war erupted in the Persian Gulf and Iraq seemed to be on the losing end, the United States sent its Seventh Fleet to the region and bombed Iranian oil installations at Khark. U.S. forces also shot down an Iranian civilian plane, killing over 280 passengers.

The fifth oil war resulted from the changing balance of power between Iran and Iraq. With the support of the West, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, Saddam Hussein became a Frankenstein monster during this war. The ratio of armed forces between Iran and Iraq was radically reversed from 4:1 to 1:4.

Saddam thus considered the end of the Cold War in 1989 a propitious moment to reclaim Kuwait as Iraq's province. This led in 1990 to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the second Persian Gulf War of 1991. Iraq's defeat led to UN economic sanctions, U. S. imposed no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq, and a protracted war of nerves between the Anglo-American and Iraqi forces.

The sixth oil war was fought in Afghanistan. It began with the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979 and the Mujahedin resistance movement. Supported by the United States arms, Saudi petrodollars, and Pakistan military leadership, the Mujahedin finally drove the Soviets out in 1989.

In the meantime, however, another Frankenstein in the form of the fanatical Taliban had been created. Organized and led by the Pakistan secret service, the Taliban conquered 90 percent of Afghanistan by 1995. A multi-ethnic country thus came under a Pushtun tribal force dedicated to imposing medieval Islamic laws on a historically tolerant society. Moreover, Afghanistan became the base for the Al Qaida, a Wahabi Islamic movement committed to terrorism against its enemies in the United States and the Saudi regime.

September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were the most dramatic outcome of the sixth oil war. The United States invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban regime largely destroyed the terrorists' base. But it also ensured a route other than Iran for the transport of Central Asian oil to the sea.

A Bushist proposed invasion of Iraq must be considered a seventh oil war. After Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. For U.S. oil interests, conquest of Iraq would be a good insurance policy against a possible loss of Saudi Arabia.

However, with a total control of oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the other Persian Gulf states, the United States can drive the revolutionary regime in Iran out of the markets and possibly out of power.

If this account ignores other factors such as class conflicts, Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, and religious tensions, it is not because they are not important. However, oil politics has played a critical role in the Middle East's bloody history. Other factors only have a supporting role.

In the present propagandistic American, Arab, and Israeli accounts, the oil factor is often left out or under-emphasized. If oil constitutes such an important factor, then, a peaceful resolution of the conflicts would have to focus on that factor.

Less dependence on fossil fuels and Middle Eastern dictatorships, as well as more support for human rights and moderate forces, can win the United States both more durable security and lasting friends.


Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.

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