Was America preparing a war for the Gulf oil in 1973?

Papers released under the 30-year rule show Britain worried about Middle East conflict and what to buy for a royal wedding

By Cahal Milmo
Thursday 01 January 2004 01:00
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The British Government believed America was preparing for a lightning war in the Middle East to end the 1973 oil crisis, including an invasion of Kuwait, documents released today to the National Archives show.

The Joint Intelligence Committee, the body that acts as the link between the intelligence services and Downing Street, warned the Prime Minister, Edward Heath that Washington was planning to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait to secure the Western economies.

The global economy was in the grip of the crisis caused by the decision of the Arab world to hike the price of oil exports to the West and cut production in retaliation for American support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war. The proposals, based on intelligence gathered by MI6 and described as "ominous" by No 10. Officials in Whitehall said the US, fearful that the Arab countries were rapidly realising the effectiveness of oil as a weapon, was ready to flex its military muscle in the Middle East without the agreement of its allies.

The plan would entail an airborne assault on strategic targets, the entire principality of Kuwait, the Saudi oilfields in Dhahran and the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, which had announced a total embargo against the US.

The 22-page JIC document, marked "Secret. UK eyes only", said: "We believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves to seize oilfields."

With what some critics of the American invasion of Iraq might consider uncanny prescience, the report added: "This might be executed without any prior consultation of allies. The objects would presumably be to teach the Arabs a lesson, to assure by physical control an adequate supplementary supply of oil for US domestic needs, with a good quantity over for the needs of selected friends and to enable the US to rid itself of restraints on its policies arising from the oil embargo."

The report, released under the 30-year rule at the National Archives in Kew, west London, said American forces would meet few obstacles in taking Dhahran since it was guarded by "lightly armed" Saudi forces. But Kuwait was thought to present greater problems for US paratroopers since there were 100 tanks stationed around the airport.

The intelligence services said all three assaults would have to be simultaneous to prevent damage to oilfields and attracting a counter-offensive, not least from Saddam Hussein, who had been president of Iraq since 1963: "As regards Kuwait in particular, they [the Americans] could hardly afford to wait long [to bring in reinforcements] because of the risks of Iraqi or other intervention."

British jitters about American intentions were caused by a conversation between the American Defence Secretary, James Schlesinger, and the UK ambassador to Washington, Lord Cromer in November 1973. In a dispatch to London, Lord Cromer wrote that at the end of a conversation about the Middle East crisis, Mr Schlesinger said it was "no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force". The ambassador described this as "worrying".

In an analysis with further echoes of events 30 years later, the JIC warned that rapid American action was likely to be resisted by some of Washington's key European allies and threatened to split Nato.

The document warned that the timing of any invasion of an oil-producing country would be vital and Europe would argue for US policy to be focused elsewhere. "They would feel US pressures should be applied to Israel rather than the Arabs. Since the US would probably claim to be acting for the benefit of the West and would expect the support of allies, deep US/European rifts could ensue," it said.

The JIC said war would result from a total breakdown in negotiations over the oil embargo, a possible resumption of fighting between the Arabs and Israel and intensified oil restrictions. Among the other options the US was thought to be considering were replacing the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi with "more amenable men" and using Iran, still under the control of the pro-Western Shah, to stage an invasion by proxy.

The JIC warned that the Pentagon might ask Britain to stage its own mini-invasion by using military liaison teams in Saudi Arabia to sabotage any counter-offensive and send troops to seize airstrips and oil fields in Abu Dhabi and, "just possibly", Qatar and Bahrain.

But, in a further premonition, the intelligence chiefs warned that an invasion would set US troops at loggerheads with Iraq. "The situation following the US intervention in the Gulf would be highly volatile and difficult to predict. The greatest risk of such confrontation in the Gulf would probably arise in the Kuwait, where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene."

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