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What Ruined the Middle East? The question of control over oil

What Ruined the Middle East

Former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower described the Middle East as “the most strategically important area in the world” as oil from this part of the world was, in the eyes of the US policymakers, “the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment” and “a stupendous source of strategic power”. The US State Department also declared this region a cherished prize that the US intended to “keep for itself and its allies in the unfolding new world order of the day.” Hence, loss of control would threaten America and its world domination remained at the core of the US policies towards the Middle East and it hasn’t seen any change since 1945 when the World War II ended.

Oil was the centre of the whole power dynamics in the world: the Middle East had the oil; the world needed it and powerful countries were willing to do anything to get it. For strategic reasons, the USSR would not leave the West alone in the Middle East. Since increased oil prices rocked the western world’s economy, these countries needed to check the influence of the USSR, while also rebuilding their economies.

For this, both the West and the USSR did all they could to keep their respective influence in the Middle East, while checkmating each other. Whenever the Middle Eastern countries wanted any arms, they got easily. From Atoll and Styx missiles to MIG planes; all forms of weaponry were sold to them.

The Middle East, at that time, was characterised by an unimpeded, unprecedented inflow of cash. During the 1970s, Iran’s oil revenue rose eight-fold; Iraq’s revenues rose 50-fold and soared up to $575 billion from a mere $26 billion within a decade. The more money flowed into the Middle East, the more ‘Islamic’ it became. (In 1973, Egypt launched a military operation code-named Badr against Israel. The Egyptian military crossed into the Suez Canal and seized the Bar-Lev Line of Israeli fortifications on October 6, 1973. The operation was launched in conjunction with a Syrian assault on the Golan Heights, and it marked the start of the Yom Kippur War.)

Not only did they become more Islamic, they also became dynastic. The year 1973 was in some ways seminal for the United States as the Yom Kippur war that year fundamentally changed US’ attitude toward the whole of the Middle East as it felt that the Middle Eastern countries used oil supplies as a weapon of war. With restricted output, the oil prices rose by at least 400 percent. This war also showed a major weak point of Europe and America. President Nixon’s in his address to Americans, on November 27, 1973, said:

“[T]he sudden cutoff of oil from the Middle East had turned the serious energy shortages … into a major energy crisis. That crisis is now being felt around the world, as other industrialized nations have also suffered from cutbacks in oil from the Middle East … we anticipate that our shortages could run as high as 17 percent. This means that we must immediately take strong, effective countermeasures … all Americans adopt certain energy conservation measures to help meet the challenge of reduced energy supplies.”

President Nixon further ordered to cut the speed limit to 55mph. Heating of homes and offices was ordered to be pegged at the maximum 68°F, air conditioners to be turned off or down, power plants to be reconverted back to coal from oil, aviation fuel to be restricted; and all Americans were to lower their thermostat by at least 6°. These measures helped save 150,000 barrels per day.

The new political issue was energy, forcing President Nixon to produce a new energy policy which included solar power, nuclear power, and many other theories blossomed. The rising prices of oil justified prospect for oil in difficult places; for example, in the Gulf of Mexico, North Sea, Alaska and so on in an effort to reduce dependency on the Middle Eastern oil.

As usual, the West saw a problem and found ways to deal with it. The Middle East, on the other hand, saw an opportunity and failed to exploit it to the maximum. Instead they spent money foolishly, lavishly and saved money in western banks which used their money to dig the West out of a hole. The West did what it always did best: promoted discords and instability in the region to their own advantage.

The West suffered the effects of rising oil prices, but there was a construction boom in the Middle East. The ruling elites were subject to increasing demographic selfishness. The result was a slowdown toward a pluralistic democracy. The rise of liberal democracy in the Middle East was stunted, giving way to increasing dynastic rules across the region. Liberal democracy virtually disappeared everywhere in the Middle East. The US did also prefer autocratic dictators and did not want liberal democracy to prosper in this region. Each time a nation moved toward democracy, the US scuttled that government in favour of a dictatorship. The 1970s saw decades of opulence in the Middle East: Iran Air ordered Concorde, but could not fly it because countries in Europe would not allow it to fly over them claiming noise pollution. Lavish spending knew no limits.

The arms race began in earnest. Spending was massive, lavish and even reckless. The Western nations lobbied aggressively to sell arms to the Middle Eastern countries. The Iranian defence expenditure was almost doubled in only six years, and among those orders to US companies alone for military materiel were nearly US$20 billion. Which surface-to-air missile will they buy? The American or the French or the British or those of the USSR? Between 1975 and 1978, Iran spent 40 percent of its budget on arms and it ordered hundreds of chieftain tanks; the Israelis ordered a large number of Mirage fighter jets. MIGs 21, 23, 25 and 29 were ordered by Syria, 772 Soviet tanks and 5 US jets were ordered by Iraq, the US sold F5 and F16s to Saudi Arabia. In fine, the Middle East arms race was truly on, to the benefit of the economies of Britain, France, the USSR and the US. The upshoot of all these war materiel and the pampering of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait by the US started in the 1970s and even today, resulting in the endemic instability.

A few years ago, Iran wanted to become a nuclear power. Today, this has become a big issue. It may be said that the handling of the Iranian pursuit of nuclear power defined Obama administration. But it was not so earlier. Western countries were falling over themselves to provide nuclear technology and knowhow to the Middle East.

Iraq’s nuclear potential and the inability of the Atomic Energy Commission, (AEC) to locate them, led to war and were used by President Bush as a deliberate policy to hoodwink the United Nations. In 2003, the US declared war against Iraq, citing the laboratories for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and the facilities, the centrifuges for nuclear weapons. US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave these facts as a justification for war. The UN inspectors’ team could not find any. Iran’s desire to have nuclear power has provoked similar questions. If Iraq and Israel were to have nuclear weapons, the Iranians did not understand why they would be denied.

The role of the US in Iraq is rather unedifying. President Bush encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in a bitter war. He invited hundreds of Iraqi scientists to the US to train and research in nuclear technology.

Kissinger said that for major oil producer to pursue policy such as trans-nuclear energy was a wasteful use of resources. But was it the place of the US to dictate how a nation ran its economy? The US position, followed slavishly by the West, was a smoke screen. Moreover, these were materials that a decade or generation before were being openly offered in the Middle East.

US actively encouraged these countries, despite the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to acquire nuclear power technology. US had a policy named “Atoms for Peace” which allowed its participation in the International Atomic Pool and thus gave friendly governments an access to 40,000 kilograms of Uranium (U235) for nonmilitary research.

For 30 years, the US and indeed all western countries were sharing nuclear technology, components and materials with countries in the Middle East. It was a centre point in US policy so long as that country, enjoying the nuclear-sharing privilege, would oppose USSR. For example, the US supported the Iran’s Shah who needed nuclear power.

In 1974, US sold two reactors to Iran. It also sold enriched Uranium to Iran. This agreement was extended in 1975 with a new US$15 billion trade deal which included the purchase of 8 nuclear reactors for US$6.4 billion with a processing facility that would extract plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel, thus enabling Iran to operate a nuclear fuel cycle. From that to nuclear weapons was but a small step.

Both Iraq and Iran had major nuclear programmes. They sent scores of Iranians and Iraqis worldwide for nuclear training. In 1975, work began in Bushehr with the aid of a West German company. Contracts were also signed with France to undertake and to reprocess Uranium for Iran.

Iraq had a plan to build 6 nuclear bombs a year and sought cooperation from France, Italy and Canada. France built the Osiris reactor. All this was done under the watchful eye of the Israel. They should know because their own bombs were obtained through clandestine research and help from outside Israel. It became Israeli policy to sabotage nuclear programmes of the rest of the Middle East, and of some other Muslim countries. For instance, the US tried to dissuade Pakistan from pursuing its own nuclear project by promising Pakistan that it could benefit from the facility being built in Iran under a scheme devised by no other than Dick Cheney, for the plant to serve as hub for energy needs in the area.

Since the WWII, war resources had been poured into Iran and neighbouring countries. Leaders had been courted, indulged and those who wouldn’t play, deposed. Syria and Iraq looked to the USSR. The net result of the arms race was that everybody lost, but the Middle East lost the most, emerging as an endemically unstable region.

The fall of the Shah of Iran sent huge shockwaves in the US; and created hope in the USSR that it would soon take Iran into its fold.

To balance the influence of the West in the Middle East, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Under the USSR, Afghanistan was en route to modernity. It expanded education, built hospitals and established new educational institutions which helped substantially increase the literacy rates in the country. The ousting of King Daoud Khan in 1973 by Nur Muhammad Taraki, who himself was overthrown by Hafizullah Amin, is considered the beginning of the widely-held belief that Al-Qaeda was a CIA creation.

Instability in the Middle East has been stoked by a continuity of the policy of exploitation adopted by the US and the West. The West has treated Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with kid cloves. Why is the West not pressing on Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and more Arab nations to take Arab immigrants? Is it that they do not want to antagonize their ‘allies’ — stooges, more rightly — in the Middle East?

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