George W. Bush was quietly approaching US petroleum corporations and trying to do deals with the French and Russian governments and their energy companies regarding Iraqi petroleum fields in fall of 2002, according to British government documents. BP learned of these secret negotiations, and arranged for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Trade Minister, Lady Elizabeth Symons, to lobby Bush on behalf of BP, which was afraid of being “locked out” of the Iraqi fields after the war.
The anxieties were palpable in a memo written by Edward Chaplin, director of the Middle East department at the Foreign Office, in October of 2002, after a meeting with the companies: “Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future… We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.”
After a meeting with BP executives at the Foreign Office on 6 November 2002 to discuss the situation in post-war Iraq, an FO official wrote, “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.”
Symons tried to reassure BP that she believed it would be given Iraq concessions as a reward for Britain joining in the Iraq War, which proves that Blair was already committed to the war, despite his denials at that time. She pledged to “report back to the companies before Christmas” on the lobbying.
The British daily, The Independent, has been given 1,000 documents detailing talks between the British government and oil companies such as BP and Shell in fall of 2002 about their share in Iraqi petroleum. The memoranda were gained through Freedom of Information requests over five years by the activist Greg Muttitt, who has a book forthcoming. The documents flatly contradict denials 1) by Shell that its representatives met with the Blair government on Iraq at that time; 2) by BP that it had “no strategic interest” in Iraqi petroleum, and 3) by Tony Blair himself that it was a “conspiracy theory” that he was interested in Iraq’s petroleum as a motive for war.
In every decade since the 1950s, fewer and fewer big new petroleum fields have been discovered. Companies such as BP and Exxon-Mobil are desperate for new fields to exploit and fearful for the future if global oil production has peaked or is about to do so. Iran and Iraq hold most of the likely big reserves of unexploited oil known or suspected to exist in relatively easy-to-get-at regions.
It seems an odd accusation that the Bush White House was reaching out to Jacques Chirac and Total SA, and to Vladimir Putin and
Gazprom Lukoil in fall of 2002 but cutting the British out.
Since we know from Symons that Blair was already committed to the Iraq War in fall of 2002, the most likely conclusion is that the Bush team was taking the British for granted and felt it more urgent to dangle the Iraqi oil fields before Chirac and Putin as an enticement to them to support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the war. In this scenario, BP was being a little paranoid about being cut out of these deals; they just were not at that time a front-burner negotiating partner because London was felt already to be on board. But they appear to have feared that Bush would give the show away to France and Russia to get them on board, leaving slim pickings for BP.
In the end, of course, Chirac and Putin declined to be bribed by Bush in that way, leaving Washington with only Britain as an invasion partner, which did in fact set BP up to do very handsomely in nailing down Iraq petroleum concessions.
As soon as Iraq had been occupied, in spring, 2003, British officials began strategizing how to insert corporations such as BP into an “open” Iraqi oil market without appearing “gratuitously exploitative,” according to The Independent today. I suppose being exploitative was O.K., just as long as the UK was not being unnecessarily so.
After 2003, half of Iraq’s estimated 115 billion barrels in reserves have been optioned by major Western petroleum corporations through the Iraqi ministry of petroleum, headed by Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite member of the State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, as an exiled activist of the Da`wa or Islamic Mission Party, had signed on to the Pentagon plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2002.
Blair said in February of 2003 on the eve of war,
“Let me just deal with the oil thing because… the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it. The fact is that, if the oil that Iraq has were our concern, I mean we could probably cut a deal with Saddam tomorrow in relation to the oil. It’s not the oil that is the issue, it is the weapons…”
I explained in my book, Engaging the Muslim World,
why Blair’s assertion was untrue. The prime minister could not have done a deal with Saddam Hussein, because of US congressional sanctions on that country. Those sanctions, like the ones on Iran, were strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC, among the most effective and powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill. They were intended to ensure that Iraq and Iran, oil states hostile to Israel with the wherewithal to build big armies and to acquire deadly weaponry, should remain weak and unable to benefit from their petroleum riches.
I pointed out that Dick Cheney, while heading up Halliburton in 1995-2000, had heavily lobbied Congress to stop imposing such sanctions, and had tried to convince it to restore good relations with Iran, so that US energy corporations could invest in its petroleum and gas. Cheney’s anti-sanctions efforts on the Hill crashed and burned, and he was unable to make any headway against AIPAC on that issue.
I argued that Cheney concluded that if you can’t beat them, you have to join them. He appears to have decided that there was only one way to open up Iraq and Iran to Western investment, which was to do regime change and install governments in Baghdad and Tehran that would be pro-American and at least not openly hostile or threatening to Israel. In this way, the anxieties of AIPAC could be allayed at the same time that the ambitions of Big Oil could be achieved. This old-time Arabist thus made an alliance with the Neoconservatives, who had in 1996 argued for regime change in Iraq, in a white paper for Israeli prime ministerial candidate Binyamin Netanyahu.
So what Blair was saying was wrong on two counts. First, it simply was not the case that Washington and London were free to do a deal with Saddam. The US congress’s AIPAC-backed sanctions regime, which would have been applied to BP if it had tried to go into Saddam’s Iraq, stood in the way of any such move. And second, that Blair had joined with Bush in an illegal war of aggression with no UNSC sanction and no justification under the United Nations Charter, because of the prospect of opening Iraqi fields to development by BP and Shell, was not “absurd.”
Blair has made on the order of $32 million since leaving office, through various consultancies. In 2007 he took BP executives with him to Libya where he arranged for an entree for it into that market, potentially worth $21 billion. That is why the current UN intervention in Libya is not a war for oil. They had the oil. Blair also promised military training to Qaddafi’s special forces.
Lady Symons was until last month an unpaid adviser to Libya’s National Economic Development Board; she quit when Qaddafi began sending tanks to shell urban rallies.
The documentation of BP’s negotiations with the Blair government on Iraqi petroleum suggests that researchers should look further into the role in the Iraq War of Big Oil in the United States. Though, since the US is now more of a plutocracy than Britain and US citizens now have fewer rights than UK citizens, we will not find it as easy to get to the bottom of it all.