By Lawrence S. Wittner
The offshore oil drilling catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico brought to
us by BP has overshadowed its central role over the past century in
fostering some other disastrous events.
BP originated in 1908 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company—a British
corporation whose name was changed to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company
two decades later. With exclusive rights to extract, refine, export,
and sell Iran’s rich oil resources, the company reaped enormous
profits. Meanwhile, it shared only a tiny fraction of the proceeds
with the Iranian government. Similarly, although the company’s
British personnel lived in great luxury, its Iranian laborers endured
lives of squalor and privation.
In 1947, as Iranian resentment grew at the giant oil company’s
practices, the Iranian parliament called upon the Shah, Iran’s feudal
potentate, to renegotiate the agreement with Anglo-Iranian. Four
years later, Mohammed Mossadeq, riding a tide of nationalism, became
the nation’s prime minister. As an enthusiastic advocate of taking
control of Iran’s oil resources and using the profits from them to
develop his deeply impoverished nation, Mossadeq signed legislation,
passed unanimously by the country’s parliament, to nationalize the
Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
The British government was horrified. Eager to assist the embattled
corporation, it imposed an economic embargo on Iran and required its
technicians to leave the country, thus effectively blocking the
Iranian government from exporting its oil. When this failed to bring
the Iranians to heel, the British government sought to arrange for the
overthrow of Mossadeq—first through its own efforts and, later (when
Britain’s diplomatic mission was expelled from Iran for its subversive
activities), through the efforts of the U.S. government. But
President Truman refused to commit the CIA to this venture.
To the delight of Anglo-Iranian, it received a much friendlier
reception from the new Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State
John Foster Dulles had worked much of his life as a lawyer for
multinational corporations, and viewed the Iranian challenge to
corporate holdings as a very dangerous example to the world.
Consequently, the CIA was placed in charge of an operation, including
fomenting riots and other destabilizing activities, to overthrow
Mossadeq and advance oil company interests in Iran.
Organized by CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt in the summer of 1953, the
coup was quite successful. Mossadeq was placed under house arrest for
the rest of his life, the power of the pro-Western shah was
dramatically enhanced, and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was once
again granted access to Iran’s vast oil resources. To be sure, thanks
to the key role played in the coup by the U.S. government, the British
oil company—renamed British Petroleum—henceforth had to share the
lucrative oil extraction business in Iran with U.S. corporations.
Even so, in the following decades, with the Iranian public kept in
line by the Shah’s dictatorship and by his dreaded secret police, the
SAVAK, it was a very profitable arrangement—although not for most
But, of course, actions can have unforeseen consequences. In Iran,
public anger grew at the Shah’s increasingly autocratic rule,
culminating in the 1979 revolution and the establishment of a regime
led by Islamic fanatics. Not surprisingly, the new rulers—and much of
the population—blamed the United States for the coup against Mossadeq
and its coziness with the Shah. This, in turn, led to the ensuing
hostage crisis and to the onset of a very hostile relationship between
the Iranian and U.S. governments.
And there was worse to come. Terrified by the rise of Islamic
fundamentalism on their southern border, Soviet leaders became
obsessed with fundamentalist revolt in Afghanistan and began pouring
troops into that strife-torn land. This was the signal for the U.S.
government to back an anti-Soviet, fundamentalist jihad in
Afghanistan, thus facilitating the growth of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,
who eventually turned their weapons on the United States.
Furthermore, as part of its anti-Iran strategy, the U.S. government
grew increasingly chummy with Iran’s arch foe, Iraq. As Saddam
Hussein seemed a particularly useful ally, Washington provided him
with military intelligence and the helicopters that he used to spray
poison gas on Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War. Might not such
a friendship, cemented with a handshake by Donald Rumsfeld, have
emboldened Saddam Hussein to act more freely in the region in
subsequent years? It certainly didn’t improve U.S. relations with
Iran, which today is headed by a deplorable government that—consumed
by fear and loathing of the United States—might be developing nuclear
At this point, we might well wonder if it was such a good idea to
overthrow a democratic, secular nationalist like Mossadeq to preserve
the profits of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now renamed BP).
Indeed, given the sordid record of BP and other giant oil companies,
we might wonder why we tolerate them at all.
Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New
York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History
of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).