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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for the U.S.-based Divergente LLC consulting firm with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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UK's Secret Cold War Plan For Middle East Oil Fields

Oilfield fire

The 1950s were a turbulent time on both sides of the Iron Curtain. With the Second World War over and the star role played by crude oil in its outcome, British and U.S. intelligence agencies wasted no time working out scenarios should the Soviets invade the Middle East.

In hindsight, especially to younger generations, this might seem eccentric, but not to those who remember the Cold War and the paranoia that raged on both sides. In the 50s, the British and U.S. intelligence services were genuinely concerned about a further Soviet expansion, into the Middle East, which at the time was the main source of crude oil for both countries. No wonder the region was a priority security issue for both countries.

The plans were first hatched by U.S. President Truman in 1949, Russian Sputnik writes, citing a number of recently declassified documents from both the UK and the United States. Dubbed “oil denial”, the plans involved oil company personnel in the Middle East sabotaging their own oilfields and refineries in case of a Soviet invasion, in hopes of restricting the invaders’ access to the precious commodity.

While sound in themselves, the denial plans of the Brits faced problems: the empire’s influence in the Middle East was in decline. Iran’s and Iraq’s governments, according to declassified documents, were believed to be particularly unlikely to cooperate with oil companies in sabotaging their own oil industry.

The reason for this was that the UK no longer had a monopolistic presence in these two, despite the U.S.-led 1953 coup in Iran, which returned the shah to power and BP to the helm of the Iranian oil industry. BP was at the helm, true, but the Iranian government controlled the refineries, and was building more. The Soviet invasion scenario involved not just oilfields but also refineries. Related: Elon Musk Could Go Unpaid For A Decade

Fearing the Iraqi and Iranian governments’ likely unwillingness to play along with the sabotage plans, Britain was left with few options to keep the Soviets from the oil. Air strikes were the most logical option, but there was a problem there, too: there were not enough airplanes to carry out all the necessary attacks in case of an invasion. As a result, the nuclear option was put on the table by a Joint Chiefs of Staff committee in the mid-1950s.

There were discussions with U.S. intelligence and military authorities on the joint use of nuclear strikes on government-controlled refineries in Iraq and Iran, but there are no documents declassified that state which nuclear plan was eventually approved. In any case, American nuclear strikes on Iranian oil facilities were deemed “the only feasible means of oil denial” for Iran, despite the pro-Western shah.

More discussions followed, and the nukes were eventually taken off the table, thanks to CIA operative George Prussing, who was assigned to work with oil companies in the Middle East on the best way to ensure the success of oil denial plans. Prussing concluded that this way was via ground demolition of fields and facilities. Still, it’s good that the Soviets never tried to expand into the Middle East — so soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons were still very popular as the ultimate problem solver.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on January 30 2018 said:
    I heard that Saddam made a big mistake when he invaded Kuwait. Had he raced south, down the western side of the Gulf, he might have reached the Indian Ocean, and the West would have been in serious trouble taking the oil fields back. It might have worked, had he kept going before the West could react. Back in those days, his army could have chased off anyone in the way. Iran wasn't in a position to stop him. But they might have opened another front on their border. That is one reason why speed would have been critical. The element of surprise and logistics might have made the difference. His armored columns would have needed to cause panic, and grab land before the West could bomb it to a halt using long range bombers based in Europe. Had he allied with the Russians for air cover, they might have ruled the world, since they would have controlled most of the low cost oil. I guess the Pentagon ran a war game to see if it could have worked. If not, they should be replaced.
    One reason why the Germans lost WW II was a fuel shortage. Albert Speer, Hitler's minister of armaments, said that the day he was informed that the Allies were bombing his synthetic fuel plants, he knew that the war was lost.
    Oil is one reason why the Chinese have taken over the South China Sea. They will probably invade the Middle East some day. Or just buy it.

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