Shortly after retiring from his duties as chief anchor of Nightline, broadcast journalist Ted Koppel wrote a New York Times Op-Ed, Will Fight For Oil [2/24/06], which made the case that the United States' approach to the Middle East is motivated by oil.
Here is our response, followed by the original text of Koppel's editorial.
Letter to the Editor
March 1, 2006
In his Feb. 24th editorial Will Fight For Oil
, Ted Koppel affirms the obvious—that America's insatiable oil appetite has long been central to its foreign policy in the Persian Gulf. What's curious is that it took Mr. Koppel over a quarter century to finally acknowledge the 1953 coup in Iran, in which the U.S. traded blood, Mideast democracy, and decades of hostility for cheap oil.
It's convenient that Koppel waited until his contract with ABC News ended before informing the public of the precedent to the hostage crisis which he helped sensationalize during his years as anchor of "Nightline". Ironically, Koppel uses the 1953 coup
to introduce the history of U.S. aggression in pursuit of oil, yet undermines that very argument by muddying the motivation for overthrowing Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh
. Koppel emphasizes the bogus excuse Britain and America concocted for carrying out the coup—Mossadegh's "unseemly affinity" for the Communists; and suggests that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was in danger of falling to "Soviet influence" and therefore "called for drastic action". For an article which purports to make the blunt point that the United States kills for oil and always has, Koppel is remarkably bashful about stating the coup's purpose with acuity. As President Eisenhower
put it plainly in his 1951 diary entry, "Lord knows what we'd do without Iranian oil."
That Mossadegh was prone to Communism is a fallacy exposed simply by considering the one description universally attributed to him—nationalist
. No one disputes Mossadegh's firm nationalist core; in fact this is what made him so threatening to Western interests, and the media used it against him by foolishly equating his nationalism with being "anti-British". After the coup was carried out, The New York Times
celebrated Mossadegh's demise in an editorial which gloated, "Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism."
Because Mossadegh was such a fervent nationalist—utterly devoted to Iran's independence and repelled by the very idea of foreign interference—his government was no more prone to falling under Russian influence than British or American. In fact, if Iran were to come under the wing of anyone, it would have been the United States itself. Dr. Mossadegh, who once posed with President Truman on the steps of DC's Blair House, admired and trusted America. On the other hand, Mossadegh never once appealed to the Soviets for help, and even refused to grant them oil concessions. Yet Mossadegh's repeated pleas for U.S. aid via cable correspondence were rejected by Eisenhower; a missed opportunity of epic proportions.
In a 2000 New York Times
article, James Risen wrote that "...Washington and London shared an interest in maintaining the West's control over Iranian oil", and summarized the recently declassified CIA documents which revealed the purpose of the coup: "Britain, fearful of Iran's plans to nationalize its oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the United States to mount a joint operation to remove the prime minister".
Mr. Koppel referred to the H.L. Mencken adage "When someone says it's not about the money — it's about the money" as the perfect parallel to the denial of imperialist oil objectives in the Persian Gulf. We might reflect on that same idea when recalling the 1953 coup in Iran. They said it wasn't about the oil— in reality, it was about the oil.
The Mossadegh Project
Will Fight For Oil
By Ted Koppel
February 24, 2006
The American people ... know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people.
— President Bush, Jan. 10
Let us, as lawyers say, stipulate that the Bush administration was genuinely concerned that weapons of mass destruction, which they firmly believed to be in Saddam Hussein's arsenal, might be shared with the same Qaeda leadership that planned the horrific events of 9/11. That would have been a reasonable motive for invading Iraq; but surely now, three years later, when the existence of those weapons is no longer an issue, it would be insufficient reason for the United States to remain there.
Let us further acknowledge that continuing to put American lives at risk in Iraq purely for the protection of Israel would arouse, in some quarters, anti-Semitic murmurs, if not growls.
But the Bush administration's touchiness about charges that we acted — and are still acting — in Iraq "because of oil"? Now that's curious. Keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz has been bedrock American foreign policy for more than a half-century.
Fifty-three years ago, British and American intelligence officers conspired to help bring about the overthrow of Iran's prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh's shortcomings, in the eyes of Whitehall and the State Department, were an unseemly affinity for the Tudeh Party (the Iranian Communists) and his plans to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. The prospect of the British oil industry being forced to give way to Soviet influence over the Iranian oil spigot called for drastic action. Following a military coup, Mossadegh was arrested, imprisoned for three years and then held under house arrest until his death in 1967. Power was then effectively concentrated in the hands of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
The shah's unswerving commitment to the free flow and marketing of Iranian oil would, by the end of the 1960's, become a central pillar of the so-called Nixon Doctrine, in which American allies were tapped to be regional surrogates to maintain peace and security. The sales of sophisticated American weapons to Iran served the twin purposes of sopping up billions of what came to be known as "petro-dollars," while equipping (in particular) the shah's air force.
That reliance on Iran to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf enjoyed bipartisan support. On New Year's Eve in 1977, President Jimmy Carter, visiting the shah in Tehran, toasted his great leadership, which he said had made Iran "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas in the world." By January 1980, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had driven the shah from the Peacock Throne, President Carter made absolutely clear in his final State of the Union address that one aspect of our foreign policy remained unchanged:
"An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
The Reagan administration announced its intention to continue defending the free flow of Middle East oil, by whatever means necessary. In March 1981, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger clearly signaled that the United States was seeking a new base of operations in the Persian Gulf:
"We need some facilities and additional men and materiel there or nearby, to act as a deterrent to any Soviet hopes of seizing the oil fields or interdicting the line."
Subsequently, the United States began establishing military bases in Saudi Arabia and, to much criticism, selling Awacs aircraft to the Saudi government. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein appeared likely to follow his invasion of Kuwait by crossing into Saudi Arabia, the defense secretary at the time, Dick Cheney, laid out Washington's concerns:
"We're there because the fact of the matter is that part of the world controls the world supply of oil, and whoever controls the supply of oil, especially if it were a man like Saddam Hussein, with a large army and sophisticated weapons, would have a stranglehold on the American economy and on — indeed on the world economy."
What Mr. Cheney said was correct then and remains correct now. The world's oil producers pump approximately 80 million barrels a day. The world's oil consumers, joined today by an increasingly oil-hungry India and China, purchase 80 million barrels a day. Were production from the Persian Gulf to be disrupted because of civil war in Iraq, the freezing of Iranian sales or political instability in Saudi Arabia, the global supply would be diminished. The impact on the American economy and, indeed, on the world economy would be as devastating today as in 1990.
If those considerations did not enter into the Bush administration's calculations when the president ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it would have been the first time in more than 50 years that the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was not a central element of American foreign policy.
That is not to say that the United States invaded Iraq to take over its oil supply. But the construction of American military bases inside Iraq, bases that can be maintained long after the bulk of our military forces are ultimately withdrawn, will serve to replace the bases that the United States has lost in Saudi Arabia. There may be other national security reasons that the United States cannot now precipitously withdraw its forces from Iraq, including the danger that the country would become a regional terrorist base; but none is greater than forestalling the ensuing power vacuum and regional instability, and the impact this would have on oil production.
H. L. Mencken is said to have noted that "when someone says it's not about the money — it's about the money." Arguing in support of his fellow Arkansan during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, former Senator Dale Bumpers offered a variation on that theme: "When someone says it's not about the sex — it's about the sex."
Perhaps the day will come when the United States is no longer addicted to imported oil; but that day is still many years off. For now, the reason for America's rapt attention to the security of the Persian Gulf is what it has always been. It's about the oil.