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A hatred soaked in oil

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This book should be read by everybody wishing to understand American-Iranian relations.

Author Ervand Abrahamian's thesis is that the core of the dispute that led to the 1953 coup in Iran arose less out of the Cold War than out of the question of who would control the oil industry.

While he writes, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a historian to gain access to the CIA and MI6 files on the coup," Abrahamian, nevertheless, has conducted impressive research on the matter.

Abrahamian teaches history at the City University of New York and is the author of The History of Modern Iran, Khomeinism and many articles on Iranian politics.

In 1901, for $20,000, a British speculator bought from the corrupt Qajar Shah of Iran the exclusive rights over all petroleum products that might be found in the country. He operated on a principle no doubt well known to Canada's First Nations: "Treaties must be as brief as possible and the natives must grant us everything in a couple of articles."

Later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, partly controlled by the British government, bought out the speculator.

The deal was so one-sided in favour of Britain that Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, boasted, "This brought us a prize from fairyland far beyond our brightest dreams."

However, between 1943 and 1950, oil companies agreed to 50/50 profit-sharing deals with Venezuela, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

When the Iranian government tried to negotiate a similar deal using the threat of nationalization as a lever, AIOC treated the proposal with contempt, certain that the Iranians were bluffing.

The Iranians were not bluffing.

Dean Acheson described the AIOC bargaining tactics as: "Never had so few lost so much so stupidly in so short a time."

In 1951, following a fair election, the 71-year-old Mohammed Mossadeq became prime minister of Iran and announced the nationalization of the oil industry, just as Britain itself had nationalized its coal and steel industries.

A strong supporter of parliamentary democracy, Mossadeq was described in private by British officials as sincere, honest and non-violent.

However, in public, the British and Americans reviled Mossadeq as fanatical, mentally unbalanced and a communist dupe. Iranians were labelled as incompetents unable to differentiate between emotions and facts and in need of "a firm hand."

AIOC pretended to yield on nationalization. In fact, their version would provide the Iranians with only a fiction of ownership while leaving total control with the company.

Abrahamian's painstaking research underpins a cogent case that the British and American governments and the oil companies would never have made any agreement that would really shift control of Iranian oil to the Iranian state.

U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower himself stated that no deal was acceptable that "might have very grave effects on United States oil concessions in other parts of the world."

The British and Americans imposed economic sanctions on Iran and ensured that Iranian oil couldn't be sold anywhere.

In 1953, the CIA and MI6 exploited Iran's religious and political differences to facilitate a military coup that overthrew the Mossadeq government.

The coup's abiding legacies were the police state of Reza Shah Pahlavi and later the theocracy of the ayatollahs, not to mention a deep distrust of the U.S.

Taking their cue from their governments, many western pundits declared that what happened was not a coup but a spontaneous "people's revolution."

AIOC became BP and, in concert with the major American oil companies, controlled Iranian oil until the emergence of OPEC in the 1970s.

Winnipegger John K. Collins is a retired union negotiator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A1


Updated on Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:38 PM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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