Crude History Lesson

Is the war all about oil after all?

Dave Lindorff

The Bush administration has come up with many excuses for attacking Iraq—Saddam Hussein used poison gas, he possesses or is developing weapons of mass destruction, he is a brutal tyrant—but the one thing it insists the war is not about is oil. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated in November: “There are certain things like that, myths that are floating around. It has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil.”

But a new study by three researchers at the Institute for Policy Studies, based upon previously unpublished documents, shows not only that oil is at the root of the conflict, but Rumsfeld was in the thick of the effort to get that oil. A sort of mini-Pentagon Papers account of the history of American diplomatic and economic relations with Iraq since the early days of the Reagan administration, the study (available in full at shows that a whole host of Reagan administration officials, together with the Bechtel Corporation, spent years trying to win Saddam Hussein’s approval for a new oil pipeline to run west from the Euphrates River oil fields to Jordan and on down to the Gulf of Aqaba. The goal was to establish an alternate route for shipping Arab oil that would avoid the Persian Gulf and Straits of Hormuz, which were seen as vulnerable to Iranian attack.

In an effort to win Hussein’s approval for this multibillion-dollar pipeline, which was to be built by the Bechtel Corporation with the help of Export-Import Bank funding, Rumsfeld met with Saddam and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on December 20, 1983. Rumsfeld, then CEO of the Searle pharmaceutical company, had been named by President Reagan as a special peace envoy. At the time of his visit, Iraq was in its bitter war with Iran, and was suspected of using chemical weapons against Iranian troops.

While Rumsfeld has insisted that his visit to Iraq was related to a peace mission, a State Department communication about the meeting quotes Rumsfeld as saying: “I raised the question of a pipeline through Jordan. [Aziz] said he was familiar with the proposal. … However, he was concerned with the proximity to Israel as the pipeline would enter the Gulf of Aqaba. He seemed to feel that the only way to prevent Israel from attacking such a vulnerable point would be to have a number of countries involved. … He said they are interested but need to find the right formula.”

There was no mention of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. On March 5, 1984, the State Department issued a public statement condemning Iraq’s use of poison gas against Iran, but records obtained by IPS show that the government was continuing to promote the pipeline in private. On March 20, Bechtel executives met with Jordanian and Iraqi officials in Jordan about the pipeline. Then on March 26, Rumsfeld returned to Iraq a second time to meet with Aziz. That same day, the United Nations provided public confirmation that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iran.

Again, documents relating to that visit show that the pipeline, not Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction, was the issue. Two days earlier, before his trip, Rumsfeld had been briefed by Secretary of State George Schultz, who noted that U.S.-Iraq relations had been harmed by the department’s earlier public condemnation of Iraq.

U.S. diplomat James Placke was dispatched to meet with Iraqi diplomat Kizam Hamdoon on April 6. At that session, Placke reportedly asked his Iraqi counterpart to make sure that Iraq did not “embarrass” the United States by purchasing its chemical weapons from U.S. suppliers. In a memo about that meeting, Schultz, a former president of Bechtel, wrote: “We would ask the Government of Iraq’s cooperation in avoiding situations that would lead to a difficult and potentially embarrassing situation.”

The IPS details how negotiations over the Aqaba pipeline continued through 1986, while Iraq continued to use chemical weapons in its brutal war with Iran. (Between 1983 and 1988, Iraq reportedly dropped more than 13,000 chemical bombs on Iran.) The deal was finally rejected by Iraq that year, in favor of cheaper pipelines through Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But as the IPS authors write, “The fallout from Bechtel’s failed pipeline initiative has been considerable.”

They describe the rejection of the plan as “a turn in U.S.-Iraq relations” and note that “many of the project’s promoters became architects of the present Bush-Cheney campaign against Iraq.” This list includes Roger Robinson, co-founder of the Center for Strategic Policy, a think tank which has hatched numerous plans for invading Iraq, and Lawrence Eagleburger, the former Secretary of State who now serves on the boards of Halliburton and Phillips Petroleum.

With Bechtel and Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton in line for major contracts in the planned “rebuilding” of Iraq at the end of the current war, it’s a fair bet that the once-canceled Aqaba pipeline will be back on the drawing board again.

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Dave Lindorff, an In These Times contributing editor, is the author of This Can’t Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy. His work can be found at This Can’t Be Happening.
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