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Oil imperialism

IN A US Central Command briefing on 22 March, General Franks reviewed the military objectives of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. Seventh on the list was "to secure Iraq’s oil fields and resources". In fact, two days previously US and British special forces had taken control of the key oil and gas installations on the al-Faw peninsula. In truth, that was the first objective of the US-led invasion.

Oil and gas supplies are now much more geographically diverse than they were even ten years ago. New technology has made additional reserves economically viable. Whereas the Gulf accounted for 40% of oil sales in 1975 it now accounts for about 30%. Nevertheless, the Gulf is still a vital energy source, especially as its oil can be pumped extremely cheaply (about $1.5 a barrel).

The depletion of other regions, especially the US and the North Sea, will tend to increase the importance of the Gulf region. ‘Reserves’ are elastic. New exploration and advanced technology can produce much bigger exploitable reserves. Proven Iraqi reserves, for instance, are currently put at 112 billion, but some US government estimates consider there may be as much as 432 billion barrels.

US designs on the Gulf are not merely about oil company profits, though. Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Texaco, and Gulf are eager to take over Iraq’s oil industry. But this is part of a broader strategy of US imperialism. Control of oil resources are an integral element of US imperialism’s global interests. Energy, profit and power are interlinked and cannot be separated.

"Oil is high-profile stuff", says Robert Ebel, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. "Oil fuels military power, national treasuries, and international politics. It is no longer a commodity to be bought and sold within the confines of traditional energy supply and demand balances. Rather, it has been transferred into a determinant of well-being, of national security, and of international power".

"Controlling Iraq is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel", says Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars. "Control of the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It’s having our hand on the spigot [tap]".

Ever since the 1973 ‘oil shock’ US imperialism has been building up its capacity for a military intervention in the Gulf. In response to the Arab-Israel war, the OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries) producers, dominated by the Arab states and Iran, implemented an oil boycott and immediately trebled the price of crude oil. Neo-conservative hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld simplistically blamed the oil shock for a host of problems: accelerated inflation, the wave of working-class militancy, and a new spate of third-world revolutions.

In 1980, a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, effectively declared the Gulf a zone of US influence: "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 USA, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force". Carter developed the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) which later became the Central Command.

Under Reagan and Bush senior, US bases were strengthened in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc. During the Afghanistan war, the US set up new bases in the Central Asian republics.

After the 9/11 attacks, in which most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, the hawks saw Saudi Arabia as ‘the kernel of evil’. A leaked paper to the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board recommended a US ultimatum to the House of Saud: stop backing terrorism, or face seizure of your oil fields and financial assets in the US. Publicly, Rumsfeld had to repudiate this attack on the USA’s long-standing ally.

Control of Iraq’s oil reserves, the hawks believe, will allow the US to break the powerful influence on the oil market of the Saudi regime, as well as smashing OPEC. One of their delusions is that cheap oil (if they secure it) will dissolve the deep-rooted crisis in the world capitalist economy.

Despite the attraction of huge profits in Iraq, many leaders of the US oil companies are apprehensive. They fear war and occupation will turn Arab states against the US and Western oil companies. "It’s greed versus fear", says a former US diplomat. Anne Joyce, of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, says most oil industry executives are worried that tensions in the region may spiral out of control. "They see it as much too risky, and they are risk averse", she says. "They think it has ‘fiasco’ written all over it".


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