Review: The Oil Kings by Andrew Scott Cooper

The Oil Kings
"I like him, I like him and I like the country. And some of those other bastards out there I don't like, right?" - President Richard Nixon, 1971

"Nothing could provoke more reaction in us than this threatening tone from certain circles and their paternalistic attitude." - The Shah, 1976

The above two quotes from this book fleetingly summarize the complexities of what lies in its 400 odd pages

Since lot of years I have been reading books on politics of Middle East (I prefer it calling West Asia though). And consider myself decently aware of a great deal of geopolitics there. That was till I read this book. A lot of my straight laced understanding was washed away. Reading this was like falling off the bed while dreaming of paradise. I thought I understood national interests well. Now I understand them better!

I probably had read its review in Frontline magazine, or would have seen in it in a Crossword store. And from the description found it interesting. And it talked about topics I had not read much about. So ordered it from Flipkart and started reading it in a train journey back home but couldn't read further at that point as other books took over it. And, strangely, didn't find the first chapter very interesting or appealing. Maybe it's got to do with the style of writing. Started reading this book a few weeks earlier and finished it in 5 days. And it is a hell of a book.

It's full of startling revelations. United States of America was scratching the back of Iran to supply weapons to Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war of 1971, which resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. That Nixon administration had rigged a defense deal in favor of Grumman so that it doesn't go bankrupt. And that the Shah of Iran was asked to choose Grumman as the supplier for F-14's. That's Foreign Service for you. I was humbled to read about so many different facets of what goes behind highest level talks of statesmen. South Vietnam at one point of time had become the possessor of world's fourth largest air force fleet and that lot of it had come from Iran - through back door channeling by the United States.

The book covers the era from 1969 to 1977. And it revolves around a dozen or so of individuals and their power play in the realms of politics. It has got lot of quotes from interviews and declassified documents. So for someone who is not accustomed to detailed analysis this may appear as repetitive. These quotes unfailingly are followed by the author's explanation and comments. This makes it much easier to understand and correlate a lot complicated things spoken by diplomats. Makes for a good reading to get a hold of how Kissinger was being seen as behind the doors president during the term of Gerald Ford by Iran. And also covers, though not with a considerable depth, the beginnings of Iran's nuclear power plants brokered with the Eisenhower administration for university research, and the roots of Iran's nuclear capability which has garnered much media attention in recent times. Henry Kissinger comes out as a smart yet cunning diplomat. This makes me want to read his trilogy: The White House Years, Years of Upheaval and Years of Renewal. It will happen in the near future, for sure. One statement by the author that underlines the beginnings of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (which hasn't been covered in this book, but the roots growing out of the economic collapse are obvious) is: Luck was in short supply in Iran in the late 1970s.

I would recommend this book only to those who have read at least a couple of books on politics of Middle East written by historians, for they usually follow and chronicle events in a sequential manner, unlike journalists who oscillate between different eras and events. The book's language is simple and easy to understand. Though most of this book is sequential, at a couple of places it does go back and forth. To conclude, this book can be treated as a primer on oil-politik in a world which is getting hungrier - for energy.

As a follow up for anyone who reads this book, a couple of reads on Iranian Revolution would make for a good understanding of its political scenario. I had read Guests of the Ayatollah back in 2007, but will definitely have to peruse at least one good read by a historian to add to my own appreciation of this complex slimy web. 


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