In Wake of Chevron Spat, Declassified Documents Show Tricky History of US-Iraqi-Kurdish Affairs
News broke last month that Chevron had signed an oil deal with the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq , making it the second U.S. oil company in a year to violate the Iraqi Oil Ministry’s claimed right to negotiate all energy deals from Baghdad.[i] In response, the Iraqi government disqualified the U.S. oil giant from signing any future deals with the Ministry, which prompted President Obama to denounce Chevron’s actions and reinforce America’s support for the Maliki government’s central authority in Baghdad.
These developments are coming at a precarious juncture. The last of the U.S. troops have exited an increasingly violent Iraq, Iraqi oil production is outpacing Iran’s for the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and the latest estimates are that the Kurdish region is home to 45 billion barrels of oil (more than twice the proven U.S. reserves). It is a critically important time to re-examine decades of declassified documents profiling America’s role in Iraqi Arab-Iraqi Kurdish relations, acrimonious since Allied Powers snubbed Kurdish independence when partitioning the Middle East after WWI.
In December 2002, the National Security Archive published an Electronic Briefing Book entitled ‘Documentation on Early Cold War U.S. Propaganda Activities in the Middle East.’ This EBB contains a list of almost 150 documents detailing American attempts to spread anti-Communist propaganda throughout the Middle East after World War II, including among Northern Iraq’s Kurds. The documents show that U.S. management of Kurdish relations has been, at best, mixed.
Take, for example, an October 24, 1951 letter from Professor George Cameron to Assistant Secretary of State Edward Barrett discussing the difficulties in infiltrating the Iraqi Kurds. In the letter, Cameron observes the relative ineffectiveness of both American and Soviet propaganda in the Kurdish areas of Iraq at a time when the U.S. was trying to incorporate the Middle East into its global anti-Soviet alliance. Cameron asserts that neither the Soviets nor Americans were having much success influencing the Kurds, on account of both Iraqi-Iranian politics, and Iraqi-Kurdish relations. Cameron states:
The Iranians feel that the British tail is all too successfully wagging the American dog…The Iraqis, on the other hand, are not only vocal – their antipathy to us stems directly from the Palestine war…One does become very tired of trying to explain America’s position.
Cameron claims that Iraqi Arabs disliked American attempts to engage the Kurds, fearing the arousal of Kurdish nationalism, limiting American access to the minority group.
An August 11, 1953 dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq to Washington shows that once Americans had accessed the Kurds, Kurdish feelings towards U.S. propaganda remained ambivalent. The dispatch’s author, Burton Berry, notes that while some Kurds were desirous of American technical and agricultural expertise, in the end “used copies of a variety of American magazines may be as good propaganda as any we put out.” Another of Berry’s dispatches, sent April 5, 1954, describes how “quiet and attentive” the Kurds were while watching a U.S. propaganda film in Suleimaniyah Province, though he notes it remained difficult to fully engage the Kurds.
In the decades that have passed since the creation of these documents and the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish relations had transitioned from the paternalistic one of the 1950s, to a more mutually beneficial one by the 1990s. This was in large part thanks to the successes of the “no-fly-zone” under Operation Provide Comfort and the 1998 Washington Agreement, in which the U.S. mediated an abatement to the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War. But as Chevron’s latest oil deal shows, it is difficult to see how the United States will continue to balance protection of the interests of its largest oil companies, its Kurdish allies, and the Iraqi government in a post-Saddam Iraq.
[i] Part of the reason more oil companies (all totaled around 50) are risking angering Baghdad to conduct business with the KRG is because Kurdish authorities recognize a price agreement which allows investors a share of any oil they may produce, while Iraq’s Oil Ministry only offers fee-based service contracts.