In Iraq, Still Pursuing the Prize

December 19, 2006 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Gulf War

In Iraq, Still Pursuing the Prize

History, combined with America’s contemporary contest with China, points to an age-old motivation for warring in the Gulf—the pursuit of oil.

Amid the jockeying to redefine strategy, and expectations, on Iraq, one central question is being largely overlooked: why are we at war there? Given reports of a planned troop surge in the near future, why is America staying the course-at such a cost in prestige, blood, treasure and even power-in Iraq? What is the objective (the topic of a recent symposium in The National Interest)?

Expectations for the Iraq Study Group had fused with optimism in the wake of the midterms to stoke what has proven to be an irrational exuberance regarding the prospects for a meaningful shift in Iraq. And while the president is unwavering in his pursuit of "victory", the casusbelli the Bush Administration has stressed for Iraq has varied: WMDs, democracy, terrorism, a threat to Israeli democracy, and (recently and amorphously) for the "ideology of freedom to overcome an ideology of hate." But given the history of what has prompted military campaigns in the Gulf in the past, and America's geopolitical and energy-related contest with China, it is unlikely any of these rationales reflect the motivation for war in Iraq. As stated recently by President Bush during the midterm elections, U.S. forces remain in Iraq for reasons related to oil. And indeed, those concerns likely prompted the campaign to begin with.

The Quest for Oil

Oil has been the prize for most of the 20th century and has underlined much of Western involvement in the Persian Gulf region. Britain was manipulating Iranian shahs from the early part of the last century to secure Iran's oil, with Britain's revenues from Iranian oil exceeding Iranian revenues from Iranian oil up to the end of World War II. On February 14, 1945, President Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy on Egypt's Great Bitter Lake to cement U.S. access to Saudi oil. In 1953, the United States and Britain toppled the constitutionally elected government of Muhammad Mossadeq of Iran to preserve Britain's oil interests and to open a door to U.S. companies. The United States supported the shah to ensure its access to Persian Gulf oil. The Iranian Revolution was not a revolt to bring in the mullahs but was instead a fight for independence from external control of Iran's oil and internal affairs. The mullahs filled the void.

After the revolution, the United States supported Saddam Hussein, who seemingly represented an opportunity to topple the uncooperative and pesky Iranian regime. When the tide of war turned against Iraq, Senate documents demonstrate that the United States and Europeans gave Saddam chemical weapons and battlefield intelligence, with the result that about one million Iranians were killed and injured. Two years after this war was over, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and became a threat to Saudi Arabia and its oil resources; he was no longer useful to the United States and, indeed, became a threat to U.S. interests. The United States amassed massive forces in the Persian Gulf and kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. All indications point to the pursuit of oil interests as the impetus of these policies.

Since World War II, the United States has supported Arab autocratic rulers in the Persian Gulf to secure access to oil and lucrative arms and engineering service contracts. Promoting democracy and democratic institutions has been the articulated, but never the pursued, goal. Indeed the opposite has been the case: U.S. support for autocratic rulers has prevented regime change and thus the emergence of democratic rule.

Mr. Bush continues to support dictators, including the Al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia, while broadcasting his commitment to democracy and human rights-a policy that Al-Qaeda has been able to leverage for recruitment. Even a cursory look into Saudi Arabia shows that it is anything but democratic: no constitution; no elections until recently and then only for a portion of municipal councils; all churches and synagogues are outlawed; women have few rights; freedom of speech is not protected; rulers freely take from the state. Yet the U.S. supports such rulers who sit atop big oil reserves and conveniently labels them as moderates.

Arab citizenry blame the United States for their autocratic rulers and the absence of freedom. The West's historical support for dictatorial regimes has been, and continues to be, the main fuel for anti-Americanism and terrorism around the world-giving birth and strengthening the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Our need, and greed, for oil has historically taken precedence over democracy, given the prospect of having to deal with uncooperative, elected leaders.


Historical and physical realities indicate that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to secure access to oil, for oil services and arms sales and engineering contracts. About 70 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and about 60% of the world's combined oil and gas reserves are estimated to be in the countries that border the Persian Gulf. Each country's proven combined oil and gas reserves in billions of barrels of oil equivalent are: Iran (304), Saudi Arabia (304), Qatar (176), Iraq (135), the UAE (135), Kuwait (108), Oman (12) and Bahrain (0.5). Moreover, many energy insiders expect the largest additions to reserves in the future to be made by Iraq followed by Iran, with Iraq having the potential of more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, given expectations regarding still-unproven reserves. Oil enables the Middle East to be the largest importer of military hardware and just about the most corrupt region in the world.


Given America's vast military power, seizing control of such vast energy resources, the lifeblood of the global economy, might appear both tempting and viable. Such a prospect would allow for the securing of lucrative business contracts and exponential political gain. Taking a careful look at history and making the obvious connections, the pursuit of oil interests has been the motivation for U.S., British and French maneuvering in the Gulf for over fifty years

And then there's China. China's rise has further shifted the calculus on oil, raising the geopolitical and economic stakes even more. China poses the most prominent challenge to U.S. global domination. Energy could be the key to thwarting Chinese ambitions and keeping Beijing in check. Add to that calculus regarding the China the fact that Saddam Hussein was bringing in Russian and Chinese oil companies into his country. Iraq and Iran could have eventually hosted future Chinese military bases, thereby consolidating the exclusion of U.S. oil, arms and engineering companies.

But by controlling Iraq and surrounding Iran on all sides, some U.S. officials publicly mused that oil-rich Iran would also become more compliant. With the United States in Iraq and with Iran under control, the so-called moderate (or, rather, obliging) Arabs would also continue to tow the U.S. line on oil for the foreseeable future.

All these factors point towards oil as the motivation of the Iraq War, as part of a bid to further the country's, and the administration's political, interests. But this plan was poorly conceived. The expectation that the result would be a neat and democratic Iraq, and cowed neighbors, was naive. Common sense should have prevailed.

It was inconceivable that the Sunnis, who had wielded power and enjoyed privileged status for such a long period, would yield to the Shi‘a without a fight to the end. And since these were predictable problems, U.S. officials conceivably decided to invade Iraq anyway because of a perception that the preponderant oil-related and other expected economic benefits outweighed the anticipated costs. Now, the Bush Administration finds itself in a predicament that could well determine the future course of the Middle East, if not that of the world.

The Bush Administration's chief concerns regarding the regional impact of a U.S. withdrawal in Iraq can still be traced to oil interests. If the United States were to leave Iraq now, it would in all likelihood loose influence in Iraq. Iran would become more emboldened. And with a surge in anti-Americanism, the United States could lose all its military bases in the Persian Gulf. The so-called moderate Arab countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) would fear Iran, not to mention their own citizenry, and would likely cease delivering on Washington's directives in order to make a last ditch effort to save their thrones. Why would this matter to America? Because of the region's vital oil and natural gas resources. And the West's loss of control over the Persian Gulf would become the Bush presidential legacy.

What is now the best course of action for the United States in Iraq? The people of the region are sober about U.S. motivations in the Gulf, and an honest admission of what prompted, and has sustained, the U.S. campaign could bolster U.S. credibility there. In addition, U.S. officials should recognize that an aggressive approach to pursing oil interests could dramatically undermine those very interests.

Hossein Askari is Iran professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.