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2010-06-14

Stephen Kinzer on the History of BP/British Petroleum and Its Role in the 1953 Iran Coup

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Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times reporter. He is author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. His latest book is Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future.

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Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, looks at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s role in the 1953 CIA coup against Iran’s popular progressive prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to America’s role in a changing Middle East. Israel has set up an internal inquiry into its deadly attack last month on the Gaza-bound flotilla of humanitarian aid ships. Nine Turkish citizens, one who also was a US citizen, were killed when Israeli commandos attacked a ship in international waters last month. Israel rejected a UN proposal for an international probe into the incident but has agreed to include two foreign non-voting observers in its own inquiry.
The United States has hailed the decision as, quote, "an important step forward." But Turkey’s foreign minister said, quote, "We have no trust at all that Israel, a country that has carried out such an attack on a civilian convoy in international waters, will conduct an impartial investigation." Turkish-Israeli relations appear to be at an all-time low following the flotilla attack.

Meanwhile, Turkey, along with Brazil, negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran and then voted against a UN Security Council resolution last week that imposed another round of sanctions on Iran.

Well, award-winning journalist and bestselling author Stephen Kinzer is out with a new book that looks back into history to make some sense of these shifting alliances in the Middle East and to chart a new vision for US foreign policy in the region. The former New York Times correspondent is the author of a number of books, including All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. His latest book, out this week, is called Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future. Stephen Kinzer joins me now from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Stephen.

STEPHEN KINZER: Great to be with you again, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, I want to start where you — descriptions and analysis you gave in your previous books, which you continue in Reset, and it has to do with BP. Before we get to Turkey and Iran and Israel currently, I wanted to go back in time. President Obama has gone down to Mississippi, and he’s going to be in the Gulf Coast for a few days. But there’s very little discussed about BP’s history, and I’m wondering if you could start with us there.

STEPHEN KINZER: The history of the company we now call BP over the last hundred years has really traced the arc of global transnational capitalism. This company began as a kind of a wildcatting operation in Iran back in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was very entrepreneurial and risk-taking, and they had a bunch of geologists running around in these very forbidding steppes and deserts, and finally they struck what was the greatest find up to that time in the history of the oil industry. They were the ones who discovered that Iran was sitting on an ocean of oil. And then they decided they would take it. Under a corrupt deal that they had struck with a few representatives of the old declining Iranian monarchy, all of whom had been paid off by the company, this concession, which later became known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, guaranteed itself, or won the right to own, all of Iran’s oil. So, nobody in Iran had any right to drill for oil or extract oil or sell oil.

Then, soon after that find was made, the British government decided to buy the company. So the Parliament passed a law and bought 51 percent of that company. And all during the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, the entire standard of living that people in England enjoyed was supported by oil from Iran. All the trucks and jeeps in Britain were being run on Iranian oil. Factories all over Britain were being funded by oil from Iran. The Royal Navy, which projected British power all over the world, was run 100 percent on oil from Iran. So that became a fundamental foundation of British life.

And then, after World War II, when the winds of nationalism and anti-colonialism were blowing throughout the developing world, Iranians developed this idea: we’ve got to take our oil back. And that was the general — the kind of national passion that brought to power Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was the most prominent figure in the democratic period of Iran during the late '40s and early ’50s. It was Mosaddegh's desire, supported by a unanimous vote of the democratically elected parliament of Iran, to nationalize what was then the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They carried out the nationalization.

The British and their partners in the United States fiercely resisted this. And when they were unable to prevent it from happening, they organized the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953. So that overthrow not only produced the end of the Mosaddegh government, but the end of democracy in Iran, and that set off all these other following consequences. The Shah ruled for twenty-five years with increasing repression. His rule produced the explosion of the late '70s that produced the Islamic regime. So, it was to protect the interests of the oil company we now know as BP that the CIA and the British Secret Service joined together to overthrow the democratic government in Iran and produce all the consequences we've seen in Iran over the last half-century.

AMY GOODMAN: And that involved both Dulles brothers — people often fly into Dulles Airport — John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and also Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson.

STEPHEN KINZER: Yeah, history is kind of winking at us from that episode. It’s quite an interesting quirk that Theodore Roosevelt, who essentially brought the United States into the regime change era around the very beginning of the twentieth century, wound up having a grandson who began the modern age of intervention. Bear in mind that Iran was the first country where the CIA went in to overthrow a government. When Teddy Roosevelt was overthrowing governments, there was no CIA. So each of them opened a chapter in the history of American interventionism.

AMY GOODMAN: And why — before we move forward now, why did the US intervene on behalf of a British company, what later became British Petroleum, or BP?

STEPHEN KINZER: There were several reasons for it. Part of it had to do with the desire for transatlantic solidarity. But I really think there were two key reasons. One was that the Americans persuaded themselves that they had to fight communism somewhere in the world. That was the idea with which Dulles and Eisenhower came into power in 1953, that they would no longer stick with the strategy of containment of communism, but they were going to a new strategy of rollback. But once they got into power, they were thinking, "How are we going to roll back communism? We can’t invade the Soviet Union. We’re not going to bomb China."

And here is where the other piece came in. The British were very eager to overthrow Mosaddegh in order to get back their oil company. But when they presented the plan to Dulles and Eisenhower, the agent who they sent to Washington, who has later written his memoirs, did something very clever. He decided it’s not going to work if I tell the Americans, "Please overthrow Mosaddegh so we can have our oil company back." The Americans won’t respond to that. They won’t care enough. They’ll be afraid of the precedent of a government taking over a corporation that produces a resource in a poor country. That’s a bad precedent for John Foster Dulles and Americans, just as much as it is for the British. But what the Americans are really concerned about at this moment in the early '50s is communism, so let's tell them that Mosaddegh is leading Iran toward communism. Now, Mosaddegh was an elderly aristocrat who despised all socialist and Marxist ideas, but that was just a detail. He was able to be portrayed as a person who was weak enough so that later on his fall might produce an attempt by communists to take over in Iran.

So it was this combination of wanting to make sure that the example was not given in the world that nationalist governments could just nationalize companies owned by rich countries, and secondly, anybody who could come into the American scope as being possibly not even sympathetic to communism, but creating a situation in which, after he was gone, there might be instability that could lead to a communist government, would wind up being a target of the US.

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