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Oil’s enduring sway over U.S. policy in the Middle East, and how it explains the Iran crisis

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It’s always the oil. While President Trump was hobnobbing with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Japan, brushing off a recent U.N. report about the prince’s role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Asia and the Middle East, pleading with foreign leaders to support “Sentinel.” The aim of that administration plan: to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Both Trump and Pompeo insisted that their efforts were driven by concern over Iranian misbehavior in the region and the need to ensure the safety of maritime commerce. Neither, however, mentioned one inconvenient three-letter word — O-I-L — that lay behind their Iranian maneuvering (as it has impelled every other American incursion in the Middle East since World War II).

Now, it’s true that the United States no longer relies on imported petroleum for a large share of its energy needs. Thanks to the fracking revolution, the country now gets the bulk of its oil — approximately 75% — from domestic sources. (In 2008, that share had been closer to 35%.)  Key allies in NATO and rivals like China, however, continue to depend on Middle Eastern oil for a significant proportion of their energy needs. As it happens, the world economy — of which the U.S. is the leading beneficiary (despite President Trump’s self-destructive trade wars) — relies on an uninterrupted flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to keep energy prices low. By continuing to serve as the principal overseer of that flow, Washington enjoys striking geopolitical advantages that its foreign policy elites would no more abandon than they would their country’s nuclear supremacy.

This logic was spelled out clearly by President Barack Obama in a September 2013 address to the U.N. General Assembly in which he declared that “the United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests” in the Middle East. He then pointed out that, while the U.S. was steadily reducing its reliance on imported oil, “the world still depends on the region’s energy supply and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.” Accordingly, he concluded, “We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”

To some Americans, that dictum — and its continued embrace by President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo — may seem anachronistic. True, Washington fought wars in the Middle East when the American economy was still deeply vulnerable to any disruption in the flow of imported oil. In 1990, this was the key reason President George H.W. Bush gave for his decision to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of that land. “Our country now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence,” he told a nationwide TV audience. But talk of oil soon disappeared from his comments about what became Washington’s first (but hardly last) Gulf War after his statement provoked widespread public outrage. (“No Blood for Oil” became a widely used protest sign then.) His son, the second President Bush, never even mentioned that three-letter word when announcing his 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet, as Obama’s U.N. speech made clear, oil remained, and still remains, at the center of U.S. foreign policy. A quick review of global energy trends helps explain why this has continued to be so.

The World’s Undiminished Reliance on Petroleum

Despite all that’s been said about climate change and oil’s role in causing it — and about the enormous progress being made in bringing solar and wind power online — we remain trapped in a remarkably oil-dependent world. To grasp this reality, all you have to do is read the most recent edition of oil giant BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy,” published this June. In 2018, according to that report, oil still accounted for by far the largest share of world energy consumption, as it has every year for decades. All told, 33.6% of world energy consumption last year was made up of oil, 27.2% of coal (itself a global disgrace), 23.9% of natural gas, 6.8% of hydro-electricity, 4.4% of nuclear power, and a mere 4% of renewables.

Most energy analysts believe that the global reliance on petroleum as a share of world energy use will decline in the coming decades, as more governments impose restrictions on carbon emissions and as consumers, especially in the developed world, switch from oil-powered to electric vehicles. But such declines are unlikely to prevail in every region of the globe and total oil consumption may not even decline. According to projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its “New Policies Scenario” (which assumes significant but not drastic government efforts to curb carbon emissions globally), Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are likely to experience a substantially increased demand for petroleum in the years to come, which, grimly enough, means global oil consumption will continue to rise.

Concluding that the increased demand for oil in Asia, in particular, will outweigh reduced demand elsewhere, the IEA calculated in its 2017 World Energy Outlook that oil will remain the world’s dominant source of energy in 2040, accounting for an estimated 27.5% of total global energy consumption. That will indeed be a smaller share than in 2018, but because global energy consumption as a whole is expected to grow substantially during those decades, net oil production could still rise — from an estimated 100 million barrels a day in 2018 to about 105 million barrels in 2040.

Of course, no one, including the IEA’s experts, can be sure how future extreme manifestations of global warming like the severe heat waves recently tormenting Europe and South Asia could change such projections. It’s possible that growing public outrage could lead to far tougher restrictions on carbon emissions between now and 2040. Unexpected developments in the field of alternative energy production could also play a role in changing those projections. In other words, oil’s continuing dominance could still be curbed in ways that are now unpredictable.

In the meantime, from a geopolitical perspective, a profound shift is taking place in the worldwide demand for petroleum. In 2000, according to the IEA, older industrialized nations — most of them members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — accounted for about two-thirds of global oil consumption; only about a third went to countries in the developing world. By 2040, the IEA’s experts believe that ratio will be reversed, with the OECD consuming about one-third of the world’s oil and non-OECD nations the rest. More dramatic yet is the growing centrality of the Asia-Pacific region to the global flow of petroleum. In 2000, that region accounted for only 28% of world consumption; in 2040, its share is expected to stand at 44%, thanks to the growth of China, India, and other Asian countries, whose newly affluent consumers are already buyingcars, trucks, motorcycles, and other oil-powered products.

Where will Asia get its oil? Among energy experts, there is little doubt on this matter. Lacking significant reserves of their own, the major Asian consumers will turn to the one place with sufficient capacity to satisfy their rising needs: the Persian Gulf. According to BP, in 2018, Japan already obtained 87% of its oil imports from the Middle East, India 64%, and China 44%. Most analysts assume these percentages will only grow in the years to come, as production in other areas declines.

This will, in turn, lend even greater strategic importance to the Persian Gulf region, which now possesses more than 60% of the world’s untapped petroleum reserves, and to the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passagewaythrough which approximately one-third of the world’s seaborne oil passes daily. Bordered by Iran, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, the Strait is perhaps the most significant — and contested — geostrategic location on the planet today.

Controlling the Spigot

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the same year that militant Shiite fundamentalists overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, U.S. policymakers concluded that America’s access to Gulf oil supplies was at risk and a U.S. military presence was needed to guarantee such access. As President Jimmy Carter would say in his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980,

“The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two thirds of the world’s exportable oil… The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow… Let our position be absolutely clear: 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 United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

To lend muscle to what would soon be dubbed the “Carter Doctrine,” the president created a new U.S. military organization, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), and obtained basing facilities for it in the Gulf region. Ronald Reagan, who succeeded Carter as president in 1981, made the RDJTF into a full-scale “geographic combatant command,” dubbed Central Command, or CENTCOM, which continues to be tasked with ensuring American access to the Gulf today (as well as overseeing the country’s never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East). Reagan was the first president to activate the Carter Doctrine in 1987 when he ordered Navy warships to escort Kuwaiti tankers, “reflagged” with the stars and stripes, as they traveled through the Strait of Hormuz. From time to time, such vessels had been coming under fire from Iranian gunboats, part of an ongoing “Tanker War,” itself part of the Iran-Iraq War of those years. The Iranian attacks on those tankers were meant to punish Sunni Arab countries for backing Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein in that conflict.  The American response, dubbed Operation Earnest Will, offered an early model of what Secretary of State Pompeo is seeking to establish today with his Sentinel program.

Operation Earnest Will was followed two years later by a massive implementation of the Carter Doctrine, President Bush’s 1990 decision to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Although he spoke of the need to protect U.S. access to Persian Gulf oil fields, it was evident that ensuring a safe flow of oil imports wasn’t the only motive for such military involvement. Equally important then (and far more so now): the geopolitical advantage controlling the world’s major oil spigot gave Washington.

When ordering U.S. forces into combat in the Gulf, American presidents have always insisted that they were acting in the interests of the entire West. In advocating for the “reflagging” mission of 1987, for instance, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger argued (as he would later recall in his memoir Fighting for Peace), “The main thing was for us to protect the right of innocent, nonbelligerent and extremely important commerce to move freely in international open waters — and, by our offering protection, to avoid conceding the mission to the Soviets.” Though rarely so openly acknowledged, the same principle has undergirded Washington’s strategy in the region ever since: the United States alone must be the ultimate guarantor of unimpeded oil commerce in the Persian Gulf.

Look closely and you can find this principle lurking in every fundamental statement of U.S. policy related to that region and among the Washington elite more generally. My own personal favorite, when it comes to pithiness, is a sentence in a report on the geopolitics of energy issued in 2000 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank well-populated with former government officials (several of whom contributed to the report): “As the world’s only superpower, [the United States] must accept its special responsibilities for preserving access to [the] worldwide energy supply.” You can’t get much more explicit than that.

Of course, along with this “special responsibility” comes a geopolitical advantage: by providing this service, the United States cements its status as the world’s sole superpower and places every other oil-importing nation — and the world at large — in a condition of dependence on its continued performance of this vital function.

Originally, the key dependents in this strategic equation were Europe and Japan, which, in return for assured access to Middle Eastern oil, were expected to subordinate themselves to Washington. Remember, for example, how they helped pay for Bush the elder’s Iraq War (dubbed Operation Desert Storm). Today, however, many of those countries, deeply concerned with the effects of climate change, are seeking to lessen oil’s role in their national fuel mixes. As a result, in 2019, the countries potentially most at the mercy of Washington when it comes to access to Gulf oil are economically fast-expanding China and India, whose oil needs are only likely to grow. That, in turn, will further enhance the geopolitical advantage Washington enjoyed as long as it remains the principal guardian of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. How it may seek to exploit this advantage remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that all parties involved, including the Chinese, are well aware of this asymmetric equation, which could give the phrase “trade war” a far deeper and more ominous meaning.

The Iranian Challenge and the Specter of War

From Washington’s perspective, the principal challenger to America’s privileged status in the Gulf is Iran. By reason of geography, that country possesses a potentially commanding position along the northern Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, as the Reagan administration learned in 1987-1988 when it threatened American oil dominance there. About this reality President Reagan couldn’t have been clearer. “Mark this point well: the use of the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians,” he declared in 1987 — and Washington’s approach to the situation has never changed.

In more recent times, in response to U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb their nuclear facilities or, as the Trump administration has done, impose economic sanctions on their country, the Iranians have threatened on numerous occasions to block the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic, squeeze global energy supplies, and precipitate an international crisis. In 2011, for example, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned that, should the West impose sanctions on Iranian oil, “not even one drop of oil can flow through the Strait of Hormuz.” In response, U.S. officials have vowed ever since to let no such thing happen, just as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did in response to Rahimi at that time. “We have made very clear,” he said, “that the United States will not tolerate blocking of the Strait of Hormuz.” That, he added, was a “red line for us.”

It remains so today. Hence, the present ongoing crisis in the Gulf, with fierce U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil sales and threatening Iranian gestures toward the regional oil flow in response. “We will make the enemy understand that either everyone can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one,” said Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, in July 2018. And attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz on June 13th could conceivably have been an expression of just that policy, if — as claimed by the U.S. — they were indeed carried out by members of the Revolutionary Guards. Any future attacks are only likely to spur U.S. military action against Iran in accordance with the Carter Doctrine. As Pentagon spokesperson Bill Urban put it in response to Jafari’s statement, “We stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows.”

As things stand today, any Iranian move in the Strait of Hormuz that can be portrayed as a threat to the “free flow of commerce” (that is, the oil trade) represents the most likely trigger for direct U.S. military action. Yes, Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for radical Shiite movements throughout the Middle East will be cited as evidence of its leadership’s malevolence, but its true threat will be to American dominance of the oil lanes, a danger Washington will treat as the offense of all offenses to be overcome at any cost.

If the United States goes to war with Iran, you are unlikely to hear the word “oil” uttered by top Trump administration officials, but make no mistake: that three-letter word lies at the root of the present crisis, not to speak of the world’s long-term fate.

A version of this article originally ran on tomdispatch.com on July 11, 2019.

Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. His next book, 'All Hell Breaking Loose: Why the Pentagon Sees Climate Change as a Threat to American National Security', will be published later this year.

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19 Responses

  1. Sibiriak on July 11, 2019, 12:24 pm

    ….the same principle has undergirded Washington’s strategy in the region ever since: the United States alone must be the ultimate guarantor of unimpeded oil commerce in the Persian Gulf.
    ———————————

    If unimpeded flow of oil was the issue, the U.S. would stop its warmongering, drop the sanctions, and let the Iranian oil flow, unimpeded.

    • FightTribalism on July 11, 2019, 1:03 pm

      Exactly!

    • Keith on July 11, 2019, 5:24 pm

      SIBIRIAK- “If unimpeded flow of oil was the issue, the U.S. would stop its warmongering, drop the sanctions, and let the Iranian oil flow, unimpeded.”

      But then it wouldn’t be the “ultimate guarantor of unimpeded oil commerce in the Persian Gulf” would it? The flow of oil is unimpeded if and only if we allow it. Europe knows this, knows that the US could shut down the flow of oil by bombing Iran on some bogus pretext. The media would report that Iran shut down the flow by closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic, not that the US caused it to happen. The control over the flow of oil is of immense strategic importance foolishly dismissed by many Mondo commenters.

      • Sibiriak on July 11, 2019, 9:46 pm

        Keith: The control over the flow of oil is of immense strategic importance…
        ——————————————————-

        I agree. But in the case of US vs Iran, it’s not simply about oil (nor is it simply about Zionism), but rather about the expression of imperial geopolitical hegemony more broadly understood, which includes, among other things, preventing a non-vassal state like Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state, and otherwise having the power to interfere with or thwart imperial aims.

      • Keith on July 12, 2019, 12:50 am

        SIBIRIAK- “But in the case of US vs Iran, it’s not simply about oil (nor is it simply about Zionism), but rather about the expression of imperial geopolitical hegemony more broadly understood….”

        I agree. Iran’s defiance of imperial designs (the overthrow of the Shah) is simply not to be tolerated, Israeli desires a significant but not the most important determinant factor. The relationship of American Zionist Jews to Israeli strategic goals is not as reactive as is commonly portrayed. Zionist Jews are first and foremost imperial Jews.

  2. FightTribalism on July 11, 2019, 12:30 pm

    The most important factor in middle east policy by far is the pro-Israeli lobby and nothing else.

    No out middle east policy is not about the Oil. Both Saudi Arabia and the Iraq government we installed have nationalized their oil fields. Also, if it’s about Oil, it would make no sense to block Iran from exporting it, or to have a was in Iraq which disrupted oil supplies.

    It is also not about “Military Industrial Complex” Raytheon and Boeing could make a killing if we had a bloated space exploration budget but we don’t. Also, our military support and cooperation with Israel is helping Israeli arms industry which is competing with ours.

    • Citizen on July 11, 2019, 1:06 pm

      Agreed. Interesting Mr. Klare doesn’t even mention USA’s “special relationship” with Israel as a factor.

  3. CitizenC on July 11, 2019, 1:23 pm

    It’s “all about the oil” except when it isn’t, as in the 1940s, when the USG and the oil majors opposed Zionism, but were overwhelmed by the nascent Israel Lobby, which secured US support for partition and a Jewish state.

    On the eve of the June 67 war the Saudi petroleum minister threatened Aramco with “nationalization sooner rather than later” if the US supported Israel, and the Arabs considered an oil embargo after the war, but market conditions were too loose. The US backed Israel’s occupation, unlike in 1956, resulting in the 1973 war, an embargo, in favorable conditions, sharp price increases, and the greatest shock to the world economy in the postwar period.

    It’s “all about oil” except when it isn’t, in the Gulf War, when it was more important to destroy Iraq than negotiate Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. And later when it was more important to impose “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq rather than, after the Iran-Iraq war, balance Iran against Iraq a and recover the markets that were lost with the Iranian revolution, as US oil and other businesses wanted.

    Except when it isn’t, as in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, to pump Iraqi oil and destroy OPEC in the designs of the neocons who were the prime movers.

    The anti-Iran animus is entirely a product of Zionism, and drives the Anglo-Zionist war against Hizbollah, Syria, Iraq and Iran, including fake crises like the “Iranian bomb”. Gareth Porter and others have written about this. Absent Zionism the US would be involved with Iran for normal capitalist reasons, supserseded in this case by the Zionist imperative of annihilation

    Nazi Germany had an “oil policy” but anyone who argued that the war on the eastern front was *really* about Russian oil and wheat would be dismissed as a crank at best.

    Then as now we look to radical, racialized nationalism and militarism, which we find in Zionism and its radicalizing, destabilizing effects on US policy and culture

    Some of the Mondo editors know better than this piece, and some don’t. We will record progress when such obfuscations cease to appear.

    • JaapBo on July 11, 2019, 2:46 pm

      @CitizenC: “Some of the Mondo editors know better than this piece, and some don’t.”

      I agree, but I appreciate other perspectives, as long as they are honest and well argued. It keeps my mind open for other possibilities.

  4. JaapBo on July 11, 2019, 2:38 pm

    Unconvincing.
    1) If free flow of oil is so important, why not cultivate good relations with Iran. Why end the JCPOA? Why the US warmongering? Oil does not explain the tensions with Iran, but the tensions with Iran show that oil is not the most important factor. That seems to be Sheldon Adelson’s flow of money to Trump and the Republicans
    2) Oil producers are just as dependent on selling oil as their customers are on buying it. E.g. if you look at Russian gas sold to Western Europe, Russia has huge power, but it can hardly use it because it depends on the money paid for it.

    • James Canning on July 12, 2019, 10:46 am

      Good points. Crisis with Iran has everything to do with Israel, and very little to do with access to oil from the Gulf.

  5. MHughes976 on July 11, 2019, 4:22 pm

    It’s all about the theology, baby.

  6. Keith on July 11, 2019, 6:08 pm

    MICHAEL T. KLARE- “Most energy analysts believe that the global reliance on petroleum as a share of world energy use will decline in the coming decades….”

    We don’t have decades. We have probably passed the point of no return and will soon enter into runaway global warming leading to a global environmental catastrophe and a global financial/economic collapse. Global “leaders” are treating this as a potential opportunity for profit, China’s Belt and Road initiative, for example. They are insane. Myopia on steroids. Continued high energy usage is the final nail on humanity’s coffin.

  7. Tuyzentfloot on July 12, 2019, 7:02 am

    “It is about oil” is actually a very broad statement.
    – we want to make money from the oil
    – we don’t necessarily want to make money from selling oil but we want to control what happens to it and who gets it.
    – we want to be able to guarantee oil to our friends
    – we want to protect the interests of our oil producers
    – we want to be able to withhold oil from our enemies
    – we want control over the price of oil
    – we want control over oil traffic: pipelines, ships.
    – we want to control the countries which have oil
    – we want to control the countries in the oil region
    – we want oil countries to be allies
    – we support our allied oil countries in not directly related to oil.

    So after a while whatever you’re doing in an oil region is ‘about oil’ . Conquering Iraq was not in the direct interest of the allied oil exporters but you can still argue it is about oil.

    • Tuyzentfloot on July 12, 2019, 11:35 am

      Before the seventies , and in recent years as well, the US produced enough to satisfy its own needs. so the need to provide for its own energy security has not been a major driving factor in US foreign policy.

  8. Misterioso on July 12, 2019, 10:31 am

    Of course, until humanity can do without it (the sooner, the better), the unimpeded flow of oil from the Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz will remain vital for the world’s economies. However, in my view, the prime motive for current and much of past U.S. belligerence against Iran is to maintain illegal/brutal occupier, expansionist, serial violator of international humanitarian law “Israel” as the dominant military power in the region. Israel’s leaders and its wealthy U.S. Zionist lobby, e.g., AIPAC, which wield huge financial influence, e.g., campaign funds, over U.S. politicians, fear that unless Iran (population, 83 million), with its massive oil reserves is beaten into submission, it will eventually surpass Israel in military might.

    My conclusions are well illustrated in the following:

    THE WAR MONGERS:
    Sheldon Adelson, largest private financial contributor to Trump and the Republicans, and Haim Saban, top private contributor to the Democrats, are Zionist zealots and both have called for Iran to be bombed. Adelson has actually called for an attack “with an atomic bomb.”

    Sheldon Adelson:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=9&v=6sCW4IasWXc

    Short video, Oct. 25, 2013, discussion between rabid Zionists, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Sheldon Adelson.

    Adelson declares – “Attack Iran with an atomic bomb”

    Haim Saban:
    https://www.jta.org/2014/11/09/united-states/saban-slams-obamas-iran-policy-advises-bombing-in-worst-case

    Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Nov. 9/14

    EXCERPT:
    WASHINGTON (JTA) — “Haim Saban, a top Democratic Party donor and backer of Hillary Rodham Clinton, slammed President Obama’s Iran strategy and advised Israel to bomb the ‘living daylights’ out of Iran if a nuclear deal with the major powers endangers Israel.

    “If Obama strikes a ‘bad deal’ with Iran in nuclear talks under way and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assesses it as a deal that would put Israel at risk, ‘I would bomb the living daylights out of these sons of bitches,’ Saban said Sunday at the first conference of the Israeli American Council, an advocacy group he is helping to fund.”

  9. James Canning on July 12, 2019, 10:43 am

    The invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR had nothing to do with a plan to interfere with access to oil from the Persian Gulf.

    The crisis with Iran has very much to do with efforts to enhance Israel’s security by weakening Hezbollah.

    • lonely rico on July 12, 2019, 9:11 pm

      efforts to enhance Israel’s security by weakening Hezbollah.

      Hezbollah does not threaten Israel’s security.

      Hezbollah was established to defend the people of Lebanon from unhinged Zionists who hated them because they resisted Israeli criminality. The courage and tenacity of Hezbollah resistance gave/gives the lie to Zionist superiority and skill.. The IDF murders and destroys and ruins over and over, revealing their craven stupidity and incompetence, bolstering the reputation of Hezbollah’s skill and intelligence.

      Israel wishes their American lackeys would destroy Iran; then the Zionists would feel brave enough to take on an isolated Hezbollah.
      In such a case, Zionist thugs should probably not count on easy victory; Nasrallah and his fighters will not go quietly into the night.

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