The Consequences of Empire

A history of war and intrigue in the Middle East

By Larry Everest

Revolutionary Worker #1121, October 7, 2001, posted at

This morning, as I was writing, CNN reported that U.S. troops have landed in Afghanistan and British troops in Pakistan. "America's New War" is underway.

"Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?' " President Bush stated in his nationally televised call to war. His answer was that "they hate our freedoms; our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

As a correspondent for the Revolutionary Worker I've covered the Middle East for more than 20 years--travelling to Iran, Palestine, and Iraq to investigate, first-hand, the impact that U.S. actions have had on the peoples in the region. And I came away with a totally different understanding than this myth of "freedoms" told by George Bush.

Most people I met, and this included people from many different political trends, didn't hate "us"--they made a distinction between the U.S. government and people living in the U.S. But they did not view the United States as a place of "freedom." To them, the United States was an arrogant, cold-blooded, and hegemonic power--which has wrecked havoc with lives of the people in this region.

The early years: replacing rivals and waging war on national liberation

Beneath the earth, the vast oilfields of the Middle East and the Caspian Sea lie in an area of the planet that stretches from Algeria and Libya in the West to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, from Kazakhstan and Russia in the north to Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the south.

Before World War 2, Britain and France had divided the region into "spheres of influence" and ruled them as colonies. But World War 2 severely weakened these old school colonialists, while the U.S. imperialists--who had deliberately maneuvered to come out on top of rivals and allies alike--emerged from the war ready to pick up the pieces of empire.

In the mid 1950s and early '60s, the ambitions of the U.S. imperialists confronted a world where struggles for self-determination and national independence were sweeping the formerly colonized countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. And a new rival--the once socialist Soviet Union--was mounting the stage and also seeking to expand into the Middle East region.

The U.S. government dealt with these challenges ruthlessly: sometimes intervening directly, sometimes mounting covert operations to overthrow pro-Soviet or nationalist regimes.

One of the most notorious actions by the U.S. government in the Middle East took place in Iran in 1953, when the CIA organized the coup that overthrew the Mossadeq government after Mossadeq nationalized British holdings in the huge oilfields of Iran. With Mossadeq out of the way, the U.S. put the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, on the throne, and backed his regime as a gendarme in the region and a military outpost on the Soviet Union's southern flank.

Under the rule of Reza Shah, the U.S. imperialists intensified their economic and political domination in Iran. And for 25 years, this Shah ruled as an absolute monarch, torturing, killing and imprisoning his opponents--especially the radical and revolutionary-minded students.

Iran was not the only target of U.S. intrigue. In 1949 the CIA backed a military coup which overthrew the elected government of Syria. It aided the Egyptian government in hunting down pro-Soviet Egyptian communists, and in 1963 supplied Iraq's Ba'ath party (soon to be headed by Saddam Hussein) with names of communists, who the Iraqi regime then imprisoned or murdered.

Israel: America's Gendarme in the Region

"Even small children know that Israel is nothing without America. And here American means F-16, M-16, Apache helicopters, the tools Israelis use to kill us and destroy our homes,"

Palestinian interviewed in the
Christian Science Monitor, 9/27/01,
" 'Why do they hate us?' "

Arming and supporting Israel--today to the tune of $3 billion a year--was another pillar of U.S. strategy in the region.

Created through violent dispossession of Palestinian people, the state of Israel was quickly recognized in 1948 by the United States--which had coldly refused to accept large numbers of Jewish refugees after World War II.

I traveled to Palestine during the first "intifada" in 1988 and saw youth wounded by U.S.-made "rubber" bullets in Palestinian hospitals, while U.S.-made tear gas canisters littered the ground outside. Today the Israelis are using live ammunition and U.S.-made attack helicopters against the Palestinian people's second "intifada."

Based on land stolen from the Palestinians, the Israeli state became the U.S.'s gendarme in the region, ready to strike out against regimes that stood in the way of U.S. "strategic interests."

Israel's 1967 and 1973 wars not only expanded Israeli territory but were aimed at weakening surrounding Arab regimes, particularly Egypt--which was the heart of the Arab world under Nassar. The U.S. was keen to threaten and bribe Egypt to align with the U.S.--and not the Soviet Union.

In 1976 and again, in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon--killing more than 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, seizing southern Lebanon and holding it until 2000. In 1983 the U.S., which had invaded Lebanon in 1958, once again sent troops--supposedly as part of a multi-national "peace-keeping" operation, but in reality to protect U.S. interests, including Israel's occupation forces. U.S. troops were withdrawn after a suicide bomber destroyed a U.S. Marine barracks.

Flames in the Gulf: the Collapse of the Shah and the Invasion of Afghanistan

In 1979, U.S. imperialism was jolted on two fronts in the Persian Gulf region.

Jimmy Carter had declared Iran "an island of stability" in a sea of trouble. But in December 1978, more than 10 million people--a third of the population of Iran--took to the streets of Iran to demand an end to the rule of the Shah. Amidst a sea of opposition to the Shah, the conservative Shi-ite Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini got the upper hand.

The Iranian revolution revealed to the world the deep and broad hatred of the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. The 1980 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran--held for 444 days by Islamic students with the support of Iran's Khomeini regime--humiliated the United States and brought the end of Jimmy Carter's presidential career.

Then, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan--which the U.S. rulers considered a "buffer state" between the Soviet Union to the north and the strategically important states of Iran and Pakistan to the south. The Soviets' immediate goal was propping up a friendly regime in Kabul, but the invasion significantly increased Soviet military presence in the region. For the U.S. rulers, the fertile crescent had become the "crescent of crisis."

These were severe shocks to U.S. power in the region, and the U.S. responded by intensifying their rivalry with the Soviet Union--including by preparing for nuclear world war. This was Ronald Reagan's "resurgent America."

A key element of maintaining U.S. global power was maintaining its grip on the Persian Gulf and the world's oil supply--including keeping other Western imperialist rivals under the U.S. "nuclear umbrella." In 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter designated the Persian Gulf a vital U.S. interest, and declared the U.S. would go to war to ensure the flow of oil.

At one point, when the U.S. feared a Soviet move into Iran during the turmoil following the revolution, Carter secretly put U.S. forces on nuclear alert and warned the Soviets they would be used if Soviet forces intervened in Iran. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Carter, called the elevation of the Persian Gulf to a "vital" U.S. interest a "strategic revolution in America's global position." And Brzezinski told the U.S. security council: if we lose the Persian Gulf, we'll lose Europe.

War and Intrigue in the Persian Gulf

The U.S. attempted to deal with the new, more nationalist and anti-U.S. Islamic regime in Tehran with both carrots and sticks. It was even revealed that while the U.S. personnel were being held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, representatives of soon-to-be President Ronald Reagan were negotiating with the Khomeini regime to delay the release of the U.S. "hostages" to better Reagan's chances in the 1980 election.

But the main U.S. gambit was to encourage Iraq to launch its 1980 invasion into southern Iran, which turned into a bloody eight-year war. Henry Kissinger summed up the imperialists' cold-blooded attitude: "too bad they can't both lose." Over 1 million people were killed in the war, but it served U.S. purposes: it weakened both Iran and Iraq, and prevented them from causing the U.S. trouble elsewhere, especially in the nearby Gulf states.

The U.S. opposed UN action against the invasion, removed Iraq from its list of nations supporting terrorism, allowed U.S. arms to be transferred to Iraq, provided Iraq with intelligence aid, economic aid and political support (the U.S. restored diplomatic relations in the late 1980s), encouraged its Gulf allies to lend Iraq over $30 billion for its war effort then, and looked the other way as Hussein gassed the Kurds at Halabja and other towns. All the better to weaken Iran's Islamic Republic, as well as draw Iraq away from the Soviet Union and closer to the U.S.

But for the U.S., Iran remained the bigger "strategic prize," so privately the Reagan government encouraged Israel to provide arms to Iran and then in 1985 secretly began shipping missiles to Iran itself. The missiles were supposedly a trade for U.S. hostages in Lebanon, but the bigger trade was for increased U.S. leverage in Iran. This secret plot collapse when it was publicly revealed during the "Iran-Contra" scandal of the mid-1980s.

Covert War in Afghanistan

While the U.S. was trying to bully and intimidate Iran's new Islamic rulers, in next-door Afghanistan the U.S. was arming and organizing the Islamic fundamentalists--who had religious ties to the conservative Sunni Moslems of the Saudi Arabian ruling class. Within weeks of the Soviet invasion, the U.S. began a program of covert support to anti-Soviet Islamic Mujahideen fighters. And in 1980, Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, bringing funds from the reactionary Saudi Arabian ruling class to the Mujahideen.

Over the next decade, the U.S. provided more than $3 billion in arms and aid to the Mujahideen--much of it financed through funding from Saudi Arabia and the rapidly growing heroin trade on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. By 1987, 65,000 tons of U.S.-made weapons and ammunition a year were entering the war. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote: "We now have the opportunity to give the Soviet Union its Vietnam."

The U.S.-Soviet rivalry produced a war that would tear Afghanistan apart. More than one million Afghani people were killed and one-third of the population fled into refugee camps. Tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers died in the war. Twenty years later, the fighting in Afghanistan has still not ended.

The U.S. was lashing out at other states as well. In 1981 and again in 1986, the U.S. held military maneuvers off the coast of Libya in order to provoke a response from the Qaddafi regime. In 1981, when a Libyan plane fired a missile at U.S. planes penetrating Libyan airspace, two Libyan planes were shot down. In 1986, after a bomb killed two Americans in a Berlin nightclub, the U.S. charged that Qaddafi was behind it and conducted major air strikes against Libya, killing dozens of civilians, including Qaddafi's daughter.

In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. stepped up its direct military presence--organizing a "Rapid Deployment Force," increasing its naval presence, and pre-positioning equipment and supplies in the region. In 1987 the U.S. Navy was dispatched to the Persian Gulf to prevent Iran from cutting off Iraq's oil shipments. During these patrols, a U.S. ship shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 passengers.

The Cruel CIA Manipulation of the Kurdish People

Today, the U.S. poses as the protector of the Kurdish people against Sadaam Hussein, but the history of U.S. treatment of the Kurdish--an oppressed nation of some 25 million living in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria--typifies the imperialist's contempt for self-determination.

From 1973 to 1975, the U.S. supported Kurdish rebels in Iraq in order to strengthen Iran and weaken the then-pro-Soviet Iraqi regime. But as soon as Iran and Iraq cut a deal, the U.S. withdrew support, denied the Kurds refuge in Iran, and stood by while the Iraqi government murdered them. Henry Kissinger, the U.S. National Security Adviser at the time, explained, "covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

Iran's Kurdish population rose up with millions of other Iranians to overthrow the hated Shah in 1979, but when they demanded their national rights, the U.S. government publicly supported the Khomeini regime's efforts to crush them and maintain Iranian domination of Kurdestan.

This reality was brought home to me one night in the spring of 1980, as I was traveling in Kurdestan with revolutionary forces there. We heard U.S.-made Phantom jets--then flown by the armed forces of Iran--streak overhead firing on Kurdish positions.

In 1988, the Iraqi regime launched mass poison-gas attacks on Kurds, killing thousands and bulldozing many villages (whose stone ruins were still evident when I traveled to Iraqi Kurdestan in 1991). But during that time, the U.S. increased their support for the Iraqi regime.

Operation Desert Storm

The carnage and destruction of the Iran-Iraq war paved the way for the next war in the Persian Gulf--the U.S.-led "Operation Desert Storm."

Iraq was severely weakened after the eight year war, and the Iraqi government felt its Arab neighbors owed them something--after all, they'd been fighting to protect Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from the militant mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who were posing as the true defenders of Islam against Western influence and denouncing the pro-U.S. monarchies of the Gulf states. Instead, Iraq discovered that Kuwait was overproducing its oil quota, undercutting Iraqi oil revenues and also slant drilling for oil into Iraqi territory. After warning the U.S. Ambassador that the situation was intolerable and that Iraq would take action--and after hearing from the U.S. Ambassador that this would pose no problem for U.S. interests--Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

The U.S. quickly condemned Iraq's invasion, fearing it threatened loyal clients in the Gulf and using the occasion to send a message to the planet.

On January 16, 1991, the U.S. launched "Operation Desert Storm" against Iraq and its people. For the next 42 days, the military might of the main imperialist power on the planet, joined by its allies, was unleashed on a poor Third World country. U.S. and allied planes pounded Iraq. By the time the war was over, they had dropped 88,000 tons of bombs. Then on February 22, 1991, the U.S. launched its 100-hour ground war. Heavily armed U.S. units drove deep into southern Iraq, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the war. But that was just the beginning. The bombing of Iraq has never stopped. And since 1991, another 500,000 to 1,500,000 Iraqis have been killed by disease and malnutrition caused by U.S. sanctions. During my trip to Iraq in the summer of 1991, I saw the impact of these sanctions--ward after hospital ward filled with emaciated, dying infants, their mothers watching helplessly by their sides.

New Millennium: New Rivalries, New Intrigues

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dawning of a new millennium has only intensified U.S. designs to dominate the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Two factors are key: the ever-growing dependence of the U.S. and its European and Japanese allies on foreign oil and the fact that most of the world's oil reserves are in this region.

The National Energy Policy Report estimates that U.S. oil consumption will rise 32% from 19.5 million barrels a day in 2000 to 25.8 million in 2020, yet domestic production will remain flat at 9 million barrels a day. This means that imports will have to rise 61% from 10 to 16.5 million barrels a day.

Where will this oil come from? The San Francisco Chronicle (9/26/01) reports that, according to the Statistical Review of World Energy, the Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea region accounts for more than 65% of world oil and natural gas production, and by 2050 it will account for more than 80%. The region's reserves are estimated to be 800 billion barrels of oil and an equal amount in natural gas. Meanwhile, energy reserves in the Americas and Europe are less than 160 billion and will be exhausted in the next 25 years.

A new element in this equation is the opening up of vast new oil reserves--estimated at 200 billion barrels of oil and 600 billion cubic meters of natural gas--in and around the Caspian Sea, bordered by Iran to the south, Russia to the north and west, and the newly independent republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the east. This region used to be part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet collapse has spawned new rivalries and intrigues over who will end up with control of these energy resources.

Some capitalists in the U.S. are maneuvering for a pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. Others in the U.S. ruling class dream of a pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan into Pakistan in order to link Central Asia directly to Western corporations and markets. The U.S. ruling class hoped Afghanistan's Taliban reactionary government could establish some stability in Afghanistan and allow these plans to proceed.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many in the U.S. hoped for a cut in U.S. military spending and a "peace dividend." Today the U.S. military budget stands at $343.2 billion a year--23 times as much as the combined spending of the countries the U.S. calls its "likely adversaries" in the region.

Significant amounts of this spending are for forces aimed at the Middle East/Southwest Asian region, where the U.S. now has permanent military bases.

In October 1999, the U.S. Department of Defense shifted command of U.S. forces in Central Asia from the Pacific Command to the Central Command. Writing in Foreign Affairs ("The New Geography of Conflict," May/June 2001), Michael Klare notes, "The region, which stretches from the Ural Mountains to China's western border, has now become a major strategic prize, because of the vast reserves of oil and natural gas thought to lie under and around the Caspian Sea. Since the Central Command already controls the U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, its assumption of control over Central Asia means that this area will now receive close attention from the people whose primary task is to protect the flow of oil to the United States and its allies."

George Bush warned the U.S. was preparing to "bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies." But justice is one thing the U.S. has never delivered in the Middle East. For the people of the Middle East, U.S. "justice" has meant shallow graves and shattered lives.

This planet does not need another unjust war!

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