« Previous | Main | Next »


Post categories:

Adam Curtis | 18:56 UK time, Saturday, 19 June 2010

BP is accused of destroying the wildlife and coastline of America, but if you look back into history you find that BP did something even worse to America.

They gave the world Ayatollah Khomeini.

Of course there are many factors that led to the Iranian revolution, but back in 1951 the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company - which would later become BP - and its principal owner the British government, conspired to destroy democracy and install a western-controlled regime in Iran. The resulting anger and the repression that followed was one of the principal causes of the Iranian revolution in 1978/79 - out of which came the Islamist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

And what's more, BP and the British government were so arrogant and bumblingly inept at handling the crisis that they had to persuade the Americans help them. They did this by pretending there was a communist threat to Iran. The American government, led by President Eisenhower, believed them and the CIA were instructed to engineer a coup which removed the Iranian prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh.

And the resulting anger at the coup among Iranians went very deep. It is the root of why America is now known as "The Great Satan" in Iran, and why the American embassy in 1979 was hated as "the nest of spies" by the revolutionaries.

kbp.jpgHere is part of a Timewatch programme made in 1984 about the crisis that led to the coup.

It tells the story of how Mossadegh decided to nationalise the Anglo Iranian Oil Company - and the subsequent behaviour of both the company and the Labour government of the time - especially the Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, who wanted to invade Iran.

Just as a background to The Anglo Iranian Oil Company. It had been created in 1901 and held a monopoly on Persian oil. The contract was grossly unequal. The company paid Iran only 16% of the money it earned from selling the country's oil. But it was probably even less than that. In 1950 alone the British company earned more in profit than it had paid Iran in royalties since 1901.

The company promised to build facilities - schools and hospitals - for the Iranian workers. But it didn't. The workers lived in a fly-blown hell, a shanty town called Kaghazabad, or Paper City. The workers were paid minimal wages and, as the film points out, the company decided to cut their hardship allowances in the middle of the crisis.

I very much like the archive that argues that only the British oil company has the skill to deal with disasters - in particular blow-outs and explosions at oil wells. The Iranians wouldn't know how to put them out, it says. But the British do and so should be allowed to stay in Iran because then it would be safe in British hands.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

As the film makes clear, the British persuaded the Americans to mount a coup by telling them that Mossadegh was leading Iran towards communism - represented in Iran by the communist Tudeh party. This was not true. One of the leading Iranian historians, Maziar Behrooz, has stated simply

"The perceived Tudeh - communist - threat, as feared by the perpetrators of the coup, was not real."

But the CIA, led by Allen Dulles, believed it. Dulles sent the CIA's top Middle East agent - called Kermit Roosevelt - to run Operation Ajax. The plan, drawn up by the British and the Americans, was to bribe the street gangs of Tehran to create chaos, and then install an army general, General Zahedi, as prime minister.

The only problem was that the Shah of Iran - Mohammed Reza Shah - didn't want to join in the plot. But then the Americans sent General Norman Schwarzkopf to the Shah's palace. (Schwarzkopf's son led Operation Desert Storm). He bluntly told the Shah that he had no choice as Britain and America had already decided to go ahead.

Here is a picture of Schwarzkopf senior. He is a fascinating character. He set up a motorcycle task force to smash the mafia in America in the 1930s. Then he narrated the radio series Gang Busters. And he ended up helping create and train the Shah's notorious secret police - the SAVAK. Next to him is a picture of the young Kermit Roosevelt - before he got involved in regime change - sitting on his grandfather's knee. His grandfather was ex-President Theodore Roosevelt.

scwarzandtheodore.jpgThe coup succeeded and Mossadegh was overthrown.

But the price for the British was high. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company now had to share the oil - with the Americans. A new consortium was formed. The leading American oil companies took a 40% share, while AIOC also had a 40% share. And in 1954 it changed its name to British Petroleum.

But the price for the Americans was also high. They had got the oil, and they had installed a pliable dictator in Iran. But the anger against their ruthless conspiracy was still seething - not just among the left but also among the conservative merchant class. These two groups would come together under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 - their persistent anger at America and Britain being the force that bound them together.

But British Petroleum didn't give up on trying to subvert and avoid the decisions of democratic governments. In particular its own, British, government.

In 1965 the white minority Rhodesian government declared Independence from Britain to stop the imposition of what was called "majority rule". The Labour government imposed sanctions to try and topple the regime. A number of countries broke the sanctions - including Iran. But so did some British companies - notably two of the big oil companies - Shell and BP.

Here is a news report from 1978 where Frank Bough explains the very devious things that Shell and BP have been doing for ten years to break the sanctions. He uses a big 3D map to explain how they got the oil in.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

But at the very same time the BBC had decided to make an epic 9-part documentary series about British Petroleum. And in 1980 the films were shown at prime time on BBC-2. They were presented by Trevor Philpott

The films were pretty sycophantic. At that time BP was still owned by the British government - and what you see is one large state-run organisation paying its respects to another.

But one of the films is fascinating in the light of the present BP crisis. It is about how the new intake of BP managers is selected, the kinds of training they get, and how they will progress up the company.

It was filmed in 1980, two years before Tony Hayward joined BP. And it gives a very clear picture of the culture that shaped him and many of the others that today run the company. I particularly like the executive role-playing game - played in an old country mansion - using staplers.

But listen to the voices of the executives - and their tone. In them you can hear the echoes of both the post-imperial arrogance and the lazy diffidence that led to the inept and cruel handling of the Abadan crisis back in 1951. And maybe to the inept and arrogant response to the crisis in America today.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.



  • Comment number 1.

    i wish people would stop buying petrol and put these companies out of business

  • Comment number 2.


    Car petrol is not the only thing that oil gets used for. It's also used in making refrigerators, anesthetics, antihistamines, artificial limbs, toothbrushes, toothpaste, movie film, antifreeze, insecticides, perfumes, carpets, house paint, and a million other things. Not buying petrol would not be enough. We'd have to stop buying almost anything.

  • Comment number 3.

    So, does this mean that America can receive aid from Briton? I don't think BP will keep their word regarding restoration of the Gulf or paying out all the claims. Perhaps the British government could make up the difference.

    I live in Arizona and feel totally helpless with this assault in the Gulf.

    BP's Mr. Hayword is so totally disconnected with reality and less engaged in knowing what is going on within BP. He needs to be ruthlessly removed from the corporation and taken out behind the hen house.

  • Comment number 4.

    The reason American are so angry is that Tony Hayward actually stopped attempts of catching the oil offshore and concentrated on hiring private guards to try and keep people and the press from seeing the damage. The Government stepped back since BP said it had everything under control and at best misled everyone by grossly underestimating the oil spewing out. By the time the Govt got involved it was too late.
    The fact is the oil could have been kept from reaching our shores if BP was even remotley concerned about it. Instead they stalled evryone until it was too late. The Govt is not in the oil business and made the mistake thinking BP was taking all the options available in cleaning up the oil.
    When everything is settled and done would not be surprised if the oil in our marshes will not be able to be removed and that BP was grossly neglegent in causing the "accident" and took very little action in trying to stop the oil from reaching our shores. We already know many of the facts surrounding this and it is supporting just that.
    I would be very surprised if BP can weather this "accident". I am afraid Tony Hayward and BP will be known as the ones that killed the rig workersand our Gulf Shores (along with what will probably be the highest mass killing of animals" and that will never be forgotten.
    I truly do not understand Tony Hayward's handling of any of this or how he can sleep at night.

  • Comment number 5.

    Duncan c:

    According to this, about 70% of oil is used for transportation.

    If people want petrol (most American's love the stuff), with oil left only in increasingly inaccessible places, we have to be face the increasing risk of spills.

    The latest estimates are that about 35,000-60,000 barrels a day are leaking out. We burn about 85'000'000 barrels a day but because it's turned into an invisible gas people tend not to worry.

  • Comment number 6.

    This article is just propaganda to rile up anti-British opinion by the yanks. The yanks are such hypocrites and always get personal with their unwarrented criticism. They are so arrogant and delusional in their understanding of the real world. If you look at the facts of this case, the BOP that failed was built by an American company and Deepwater horizon was certified safe by their own inspectors. The explosion was an accident but the rhetoric coming from the yanks is purely to apportion blame away from themselves. America is the biggest consumer of oil and overall polluter in the world but they conveniently skip over such facts. 47% of BP is owned by American investors and they have 6 out of 12 executives on the board. I only wish these executives and the British government had the guts to stand up and counter the American rhetoric with strength and integrity telling them a few home truths. For instance, will the world hold America to account for the millions of people affected by the global financial crisis clearly originating from fraudulent banking activities in their country?

  • Comment number 7.

    Well,well. I think there is some truth in what selhurstboys wrote.
    Its not typical british nor US-american to blame others for their
    own mistakes. Its typical for every greedy bunch out there to show
    no responsibility for the own actions. Its just not fitting the
    buisness model.
    In the end some poor bastards will be sacrificed to absorb the out-
    rage of the mob. And it would be no wonder if behind the scenes a powerstruggle is ongoing over who owns BP.. Never forget that there
    is opportunity in disaster. And be sure the opportunity will be taken.
    The british and the americans made their fortunes and build their empires over mountains of dead bodys and this story is not over.
    On the other hand the whole outrage about the oil spill is just be-
    cause its in the western hemisphere. Who cares about the spill in the
    nigerdelta ? Only the local people and they getting killed for that.

  • Comment number 8.

    Just a minor technical point, Adam, but I think you have your Roosevelts mixed up. The picture that you caption is, indeed, of Theodore (the 3 times U.S. President, ex Rough Rider and he of Mount Rushmore fame) alongside his son Kermit, who, amongst other things, gained some notoriety as an explorer in Africa, South America and Tibet. But the CIA operative who helped to overthrow Mossadegh was, in fact, Kermit Jr., Theodore's grandson. His *father* was the Kermit Roosevelt who is shown in the picture with Theodore. I have long thought that the Roosevelt family are a fascinating study in the twisted strands that linked the ostensible U.S. foreign policy of the early 20th century with its espionage undercurrents, much as the house of Bush has done in more recent times. There are interesting connections everywhere you look in their family story: links to the Groton College 'brotherhood', 'The Room' Intelligence Network, 'cousin' FDR's wartime administration, fellow great American families like the Astors, and US foreign policy in the Middle East, South America, and, above all, China (the Roosevelt fascination with the destiny of China is a poorly remembered story indeed). All pretty fascinating!

  • Comment number 9.

    Leeravitz - yes, you're absolutely right - I skipped a generation by mistake. I'm sorry about that, I'm correcting it immediately. I agree the Roosevelts are a fascinating family and the way dynasties run through the rise of American power in the 20th Century is a great story.
    Sorry again for the mistake and thank you for pointing it out.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks, Adam. I was hoping you would one day discuss the 1951 coup in Iran.

  • Comment number 11.

    Small typo: The quoted scholar is actually Maziar Behrooz, not Behorroz.

  • Comment number 12.

    Adam, I think, technically, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1901 was known as the D’Arcy Exploitation Company after the venture capitalist William Knox D’Arcy who originally funded the negotiations, payments and speculative searches for deep oil fields in Persia as Iran was known at the time. By 1905 the D’Arcy Exploitation Company was known as The Syndicate or Concession Syndicate as a result of D’Arcy having to seek further funding from the Burmah Oil Company to continue the search for oil. It was in 1908, after George Reynolds had ‘struck it lucky’,
    that the company became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Technically, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company did not come into being until 1935. As you correctly state the British Petroleum Company came into being in 1954.

    As with most of your topics they are incredibly complex and I do not wish to be overly pedantic as I understand your need to tell complex stories in a simple way.

    However, one can miss the stories behind the stories if access to fine detail is limited by journalistic prerogative as is so often the 'virus' these days.

    I illustrate this point by drawing your attention to this film on the British Pathe site. It is a fantastic propaganda documentary made by Associated British Pathe, issued in 1951, dealing with the British idealised ‘history’ of the Persian crisis up to the point in time before your story begins. It has a fabulously crafted narrative written by Jack Howells whose heritage I think is Welsh. Certainly the delivery of the script has a lilting quality about it. In reels 1 & 2 there are cutaways to a hazy, hot, burning sun to indicate the hostile environment that the oil pioneers had to deal with. We are now familiar with a similar image, the BP logo - Helios.

    After a prologue accompanied by ground view shots of people walking the London streets and vehicles and roads of the period we are taken into a dusty vault full of ledgers and files. The story takes us, via one of the files, from 1901 and William D’Arcy, through the earliest days of the search for oil in Iran, the building of the Adaban refinery, and on through the next fifty years. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the cinema. It is called Oil For The Twentieth Century. I am guessing you have not seen this on your travels…..?

    I can see the difficulties on both sides in 1951. When the amazing footage of the futuristic looking Abadan refinery is observed and compared to the austere, dusty, impoverished, rationed post-war British nation struggling to get back onto its feet one can now see the immensity, politically, of the problem of losing control of the Iranian oil pipeline.

    There are always difficult questions and answers in the analysis to these horrendous scenarios and still they go on. It is hard to be thankful for the comfortable lives we lead at the expense of so many uncomfortable truths.


  • Comment number 13.

    i think the US reaction has been driven, in part, by the fact that BP were the main benefactors from the al-meghari release and lobbied agressively for UK government assistance in obtaining libyan drilling rights


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.