In September, US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Netanyahu went further, asserting his country’s right to act unilaterally saying that, even if the US does not want to act, the US does not have the “moral right” to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.
There is a nuclear threat in the region, a rogue state that defies international law: Israel. Unlike Iran, Israel already has hundreds of nuclear weapons. It is also without parallel in its open defiance of international law. Richard Falk has provided a partial list of United Nations’ General Assembly resolutions openly defied by Israel, including:
- Resolution 181 which “establishes the parity of the two peoples with respect to their respective rights to establish states on the former mandated territory of Palestine;”
- Resolution 194 which “affirms the right of Palestinians to return to their original homes and lands;”
- Resolutions 242 and 338 which “require Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied during the 1967 and 1973 wars;” and
- Resolution 465 which “orders Israel to dismantle existing settlements on an urgent basis, including those in Jerusalem.”
Clearly there is more at play here, then, than morality and international law. The real story has to do with Iran’s central place in the story of the world’s most important commodity—oil.
Oil and empire
Oil in Iran and throughout the Middle East is extraordinarily inexpensive to get out of the ground—particularly when compared to Canada’s or Venezuela’s tar sands.
President Nasser of Egypt exposed the secret in 1974 in his book The Philosophy of a Revolution. “He had then just been reading a treatise on petroleum published by the University of Chicago, which revealed to him that it cost only ten cents to extract a barrel of oil from Arab countries.” But at the time, the oil companies were selling it for between $3 and $4 a barrel.
This was not an isolated moment. In the mid 1970s oil from Kuwait could be produced at 7 cents a barrel. There is so much oil and it is under so much pressure, that no pumps are needed. The price of oil then was about $12 a barrel.
It was this kind of cheap oil that made Iran important to the Great Powers throughout the 20th century. In particular, Iranian oil was crucial for Britain, which had early on in the 20th century established controlling interest in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Oil from Iran fuelled Britain’s military, particularly its still immense navy. In addition, most of the money made by AIOC went to Britain. So profitable was AIOC—and so dominant was Britain in its operations—that it helped offset Britain’s deficit.
In March 1951, the Iranian parliament (the Majlis) voted to end this situation by nationalizing the company. It followed this the next month, by elevating Mohammed Mossadegh to the position of prime minister. Mossadegh, a former law professor, had been a key organizer of the National Front, a coalition opposing British domination of Iranian oil.
From 1953 coup to 1979 revolution
What followed was two years of extreme turmoil. Britain launched a boycott of Iranian oil, and sabotaged production in the AIOC oil fields. The turmoil peaked in 1953, when the CIA and the British secret service colluded to stage-manage a coup d’état to depose Mossadegh. Years later, the United States admitted its role. In 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in remarkably frank testimony, said that: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh” consolidating the power of the Shah, who “brutally repressed political dissent.”
This story is the indispensable background to the revolution of 1979, which finally overthrew the brutal Shah. This revolution cannot be subsumed under the heading of “Islamic revolution”. It was a much more complex event, involving among other elements, a massive upsurge of women, worker-occupation of oil refineries, a millions-strong student movement, and in particular, an assertion of national sovereignty against Great Power interference.
It was the latter—opposition to Great Power interference—which partially explains one of the most controversial moments of the revolution, the occupation of the US embassy and the holding of US hostages. According to one commentator: “many Iranians feared a repetition of 1953” and this “was one of the motives for the student seizure of the US embassy.”
This history is rarely referred to in the press. We are to believe that the Great Powers—Canada among them—are operating with the highest motives in their confrontation with Iran. At the very least, an examination of the very long and very criminal record of the Great Powers in Iran and throughout the Middle East, should make us ask a few questions about these claims.