In the decade following the Second World War, the United States and Britain developed secret plans to destroy or disable Middle Eastern countries’ oil industries in the event of a Soviet invasion of the region. According to US and British documents published by the National Security Archive, a research project at George Washington University, the US and Britain cooperated with major oil companies on plans to sabotage oil infrastructure using ground-based explosives or military attacks. Following nationalization of Iran’s oil industry in 1951, Britain even considered using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s oil industry, though it is not clear the proposal ever became a plan.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the US and Britain feared the power of the Soviet Red Army—so recently proved against Hitler’s Germany—and relied on the threat of nuclear attack to keep Soviet forces from seizing territory. “In the years immediately after World War II, the world was a very bleak place,” says Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive. “The Nazi threat had just been disposed of, but the next question occupying the minds of strategists was how to prevent another hostile power from posing the same kind of threat.”
The threat strategists saw, Byrne says, was real. At the end of the war in 1945, the Soviet Union had refused to end its occupation of oil-rich Iranian Azerbaijan, leading to an early Cold War standoff that ended with Soviet withdrawal from Iran the following year. The Soviets, meanwhile, had seized most of Eastern Europe, carrying out a communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and blockading the Western Allies’ ground routes into occupied Berlin the same year. “These events built up an idea in the minds of people like US President Harry Truman that this was a grave threat that required serious planning. The Middle East was key because of its oil resources, and there was a fear the Soviets would make a move on that part of the world.”
Secret “Denial Plans” Unearthed
The extent of US and British plans to deny the Soviets access to Middle Eastern oil would not be known if not for a security breach at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri in 1985. That year, an archivist mistakenly released a classified, document, NSC 26/2, that President Harry Truman had approved in 1949. The document was copied and distributed on microfiche to other libraries before the error was discovered. It outlined a CIA-backed “denial policy,” involving plans to deny the Soviets access to Middle Eastern oil by destroying or plugging the oil wells of America’s Middle Eastern allies. While the plans relied on the cooperation of western oil companies in the region, they did not involve and were never revealed to local governments.
Steve Everly, a former journalist at the Kansas City Star, got wind of lawsuits over the security breach at the Truman Library and began investigating the matter with a colleague, Charles Crumpley, in the mid-1990s. They broke the story in 1996, and Everly has been working on it on and off ever since. The CIA, he says, was clearly angry about the leak, and likely feared strong anti-US reactions from within an ever-troubled region. “I have talked to people that were involved in this,” he says. “Most of them are dead now, but they said that even back in the 40s and 50s when they were involved in these plans, they were told by their superiors that this was an area of the world where there could be a very negative reaction.”
Early US plans to be deployed in the event of a Soviet invasion of Saudi Arabia involved schemes to use oil company employees and undercover CIA operatives to sabotage infrastructure using military-grade explosives, flamethrowers, and thermite grenades. Use of radiological weapons to contaminate the sites was also considered but abandoned. While the US initially planned to inform King Ibn Saud of the plans, officials feared a negative reaction and kept quiet. The US, along with Britain, then developed denial policies for all the major oil producing companies in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, where Britain was still the governing authority, and Iraq and Iran, where Britain controlled the oil industries.
Iran: A Nuclear Option?
Everly, having researched the denial plans extensively in the US, had long wanted to see what British documentation he could find about the denial plans. “The guts of the story is really based in the guts of the British archives,” he says. “About a year ago, I spent a few weeks in the British national archives in Kew, and that is where the basis of what you've read recently came from.” Much of what he found focused on Iran. “What I found striking, and what these British documents brought home, was that dealing with Iran was their toughest and biggest challenge.” Britain, he says, worried about the Iranian army interfering in denial plans, and had an increasingly tense relationship with Iran over the oil trade.
The British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company agreed to participate in British military’s sabotage plans, but the British military faced a new challenge after Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951. Since Britain no longer controlled the industry and did not want to inform the Iranian government of its plans, it had no means by which to destroy Iran’s oil industry from the ground. Instead, in 1955 and 1956, Britain considered using airstrikes to destroy Iran’s oil facilities in the event of a Soviet invasion. But since Britain did not have enough aircraft to destroy them all with conventional bombs, it considered using nuclear weapons, or asking the US to do so.
While the nuclear question was never decided, and it seems unlikely the US approved the idea, documents from the British Chiefs of Staff Committee reveal an era in which strategists still considered the “tactical” use of nuclear weapons. “Clearly, the British military was very serious about this idea,” Byrne says. “The yields of nuclear weapons were not nearly as high then as they are now, but still, there was this sense that, if it was necessary to use them, then damn the consequences. It shows you above all how frightened these strategists were about a Soviet intervention in any of these countries. It was clearly a doomsday scenario.”
The more dramatic denial plans for the Middle East’s oil trade did not outlive the 1950s. In 1957, US President Dwight Eisenhower replaced NSC 26/2 with NSC 5714, which emphasized plugging oil wells to preserve oil for later use. Instead of relying on saboteurs to destroy oil wells ahead of an invasion, the US military would use “direct action” to destroy them if they were seized by the Soviets. Local governments, however, were still not informed. The last reference to the denial plans in available papers is found in a National Security Council document from the time of the John F. Kennedy administration, in which the White House simply asks the Council whether NSC 5714 is still US policy. There is no response included.
According to historian Ervand Abrahamian, the US and Britain really had, in any case, little to worry about. “The Soviets seem to have had little interest in the region after 1921 so long as there were no Western bases in Iran,” he says. "But the US and Britain subscribed to the harebrained premise that Soviets were running out of oil and therefore needed the Iranian oil wells.” Abrahamian is also struck by the complete disregard the US and Britain had for their Iranian ally. “I wonder what the shah would have thought if he had known his good friends were going to nuke his prized possessions,” he says.