The seventh oil war
Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world
September 18, 2002
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
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.