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There Will Be War
An Interview with Greg Brew
Author’s Note: This is the first of many interviews I hope to publish with colleagues who write on the politics and political economy of war. These interviews will highlight the work of non-tenure track historians, or historians writing outside the academy. Given the dire state of the historical profession—chronicled by fellow historian Daniel Bessner in The New York Times a couple weeks ago—I believe there needs to be more spaces dedicated to promoting the scholarship of the many excellent historians who will not find permanent, full-time employment in academia. This is one small effort to fulfill that mission.
I am pleased that the inaugural interview at Warfare and Welfare is with Greg Brew, an analyst at Eurasia Group focusing on Iran, energy, and commodities. Greg published two books in December—that’s right, TWO books in one month—that need to be purchased and read by everyone. The first is entitled Petroleum and Progress in Iran: Oil, Development, and the Cold War (published by Cambridge University Press), and the second is The Struggle for Iran: Oil, Autocracy & the Cold War, 1951-1954, co-authored with David Painter (and published by University of North Carolina Press). I asked Greg a few questions about U.S.-Iranian relations, the interrelationship between Iranian development and the global oil market, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the future of economic warfare in an age of “great-power competition.” Thanks for reading, and please subscribe to support my work. —MB
Mike Brenes: Your new books—congratulations on two books, by the way!—cover the history of Iran during the early Cold War. But there is much we already know about U.S.-Iran relations in the 1940s and 1950s. The CIA-led coup in 1953 that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq and catapulted the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, to power is a well-worn topic. What made you want to revisit this history, given you are interested primarily, it seems, in oil politics and economic development?
Greg Brew: The coup of 1953 is one of the most important events in Iran’s modern history, the history of the early Cold War, and the history of US covert interventions abroad. It’s a pretty heavily researched topic, and as you note there is already a lot we know about how Mosaddeq was overthrown. What remains disputed is why the United States decided to overthrow Mosaddeq, and how that decision was connected to US interest in controlling the flow of Iranian oil, as well as the oil of the Middle East more generally. This motivates the broader thrust of my project. The US-Iranian relationship is frequently defined by strategic concerns, personal relations between various presidential administrations and the Shah, or military affairs. Oil frequently appears on the periphery. My interest is bringing it back into the center.
MB: I wonder if you could elaborate on the history of economic development as it relates to Iran, and how oil contributed to the modernization of Iran and the growth of the Iranian state. More broadly, what is economic development in Iran—what was the conception of it—and what form did it take in the early Cold War? Given that there were many development or “modernization” efforts in the post-World War II period (in India, for instance), what made Iran’s stand out?
GB: During the 19th century, Iran was a relatively weak state buffeted by competing Great Powers. In 1921, a military coup vaulted the dictator Reza Khan—later crowned Reza Pahlavi I, shah of Iran—to power. The new Pahlavi dynasty self-consciously sought to strengthen Iran through centralized economic development, which took the form of large-scale modernization projects that often aimed to increase the productivity of Iran’s agricultural sector while encouraging industrialization and greater self-sufficiency. Oil played a crucial role in Pahlavi plans, as the sale of petroleum and petroleum products created profits which offered a steady stream of revenue to the central Iranian state. However, these profits were controlled and apportioned by Western oil corporations, which managed Iran’s oil industry from 1901 all the way to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. Oil was therefore a problematic element, as it represented both a source of wealth and strength for Iran, yet simultaneously reflected Iran’s entangled relationship with foreign powers and private capital. Of course, the raison d’etre of development in Iran, as with other states in the Global South during the Cold War, was the preservation of the existing pro-Western government. Despite the shah’s success at advancing Iran’s industrialization and building up a middle-class, the unevenness of Iran’s development, the shah’s close association with the United States, and the authoritarian nature of the Pahlavi government created intense anxieties and discontent within Iranian society, producing the revolutionary movement that eventually forced the shah out in 1979.
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MB: So what happened to economic development from the Cold War period to the present, and where does Iran fit into this story? I’m thinking in particular here of the rise of foreign direct investment (FDI) since the 1990s, and how private investment shaped oil exporting countries like Iraq (and other Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) after 2003—and how global, private initiatives shaped the oil market. (FDI somewhat displaced models of development that you alluded to earlier.) What history connects these two countries and periods—from Iran in the 1940s and 1950s to Iraq in the 2000s? Does Iran’s story reflect the “end of development,” according to scholars like Tim Barker, or the neoliberalization of development? Or something else?
GB: Well, as you can imagine, attitudes regarding economic development, oil, and Iran’s relationship with foreign powers underwent a pretty profound shift following the Islamic Revolution. This break set Iran on what I would argue is a unique developmental trajectory. By the 1990s, after a decade of war and post-revolutionary upheaval, there was an urgent need for greater investment in the economy. Iran’s leadership was wary of developing ties to sources of foreign capital, while US sanctions prevented Iran’s full integration into the global economy. There were two schools of thought within Iran regarding the country’s path forward. The chap, Islamic Left or reform faction, advocated for greater state involvement in the economy and programs combatting inequality, but was also more supportive of opening up Iran and pursuing closer relations with the West. The rast, the conservative or “principalist” faction, advocated for a less regulated economy, with heavy preference given to certain economic sectors, and a “resistance economy” that would make Iran immune to Western economic sanctions. I am borrowing here from the work of Siavush Randjbar-Daemi and his book on post-revolutionary Iranian politics. The chap was broadly suppressed and barred from actively participating in the politics following the Green Revolution of 2009. So, the conservatives are firmly in charge, and the collapse of the nuclear deal in 2018 guaranteed that Iran would remain heavily sanctioned and cut off from Western investment.
MB: You write that “by framing Iran’s development in Cold War terms, the shah astutely connected the U.S. strategic objectives with his own personal ambition to expand the power of the central state” (Petroleum and Progress in Iran, 57.) How does the global Cold War determine the creation of Iran as a petrostate? Who are the players in this Cold War story, besides the shah?
GB: In 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran and removed the first Pahlavi shah. Iran exited the war in a weakened state, riven by factionalism and facing pressure from both the Soviets in the North and the British in the South. The shah and his allies perceived the United States to be a useful ally, a “third power” to balance the British and Soviets. Over time, the shah also perceived assistance from the United States as a tool to suppress possible threats to his position—namely, Iran’s Left and moderate nationalist movement led by Mohammed Mosaddeq. Apart from building up Iran’s military, economic development was the principal tool by which the shah and his allies strengthened their position and dominated Iranian society. And the quickest way to develop Iran, from the point of view of the shah and his advisors, was to expand Iran’s oil production and develop its access to oil revenues. It’s important to note, however, that policymakers in the United States shared this view. In the US official mind, the shah’s state was weak, the shah an indecisive ruler, and Iran vulnerable to collapse with an ample supply of oil money. So, the creation of the Pahlavi petrostate was the result of actions by both the Pahlavi government and the United States, supported by development groups that supported the shah’s efforts and the private Western oil companies that facilitated the rise in Iran’s production and its place in the global market.
MB: There is much discussion right now about the future of Iran due to the protests that erupted last year following the death of Mahsa Amini. And as people like Karim Sadjadpour pointed out in Foreign Affairs, Iran’s dominance in the Middle East might prove fleeting due to a confluence of factors: the uncertainty over the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (given his age and poor health), human rights abuses that have weakened the regime’s legitimacy, and declining oil production, despite Iranian oil exports to China increasing fourfold since 2021. Do you think that there is a looming crisis in Iran, particularly in regards to the role that oil plays in Iran’s domestic legitimacy and regional hegemony?
GB: There is no question that the Islamic Republic faces a profound crisis of legitimacy. Calls for greater political participation or reform have been met with repression, with prominent reformists kept under house arrest and barred from holding office. Protests against the country’s draconian cultural laws—including the laws restricting women’s dress—are met with brutal violence. It’s true that Iran’s ability to produce and export oil is limited due to US sanctions reimposed after the collapse of the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran’s status as a potential regional hegemon is uncertain owing both to its domestic problems and the presence of powerful opponents, including Israel and the United States. Yet I would not bet on Iran collapsing, or these pressures producing meaningful changes either to Iran’s government or its status as an oil producer. Demand for energy is bound to increase, and Iran holds some of the world’s largest reserves of fossil fuels. While the West has shown little interest in developing Iran’s resources, China and Russia are much friendlier to the regime in Tehran. I would expect ties between Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow to grow, particularly in the economic and financial realm. There remains no organized opposition to the Islamic Republic inside Iran, and while protests in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death have been widespread, they have not yet coalesced into an organized political movement along the lines of the Green Revolution. Were Khamenei to die, there would be a period of instability and uncertainty, but it is likely that a new governing coalition would emerge fairly quickly, possibly with a larger role for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC), which has grown in size and importance since 2009.
MB: Last question, then I will let you go. The concern now is that semiconductors are displacing oil as the most strategic global product, that semiconductors will play the same role that oil did in shaping the United States and its Cold War foreign policy (the 1953 coup in Iran, cozy relationships with autocrats in the Middle East) in an era of “great-power competition.” Can we expect to see “mineral interventionism” in Africa and other parts of the Global South as the United States and China compete over commodities and raw materials that are needed for semiconductor production? Will we see an increase in economic warfare, in resource warfare over the next few years? I’m thinking here of points you made recently in Foreign Affairs with Morgan Bazilian in regards to clean energy policies.
GB: I don’t think we should discount the possibility of Great Power competition over access to raw materials, including those needed to produce semiconductors and critical minerals—lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and graphite, among others—necessary to powering the energy transition. In places like Bolivia, Indonesia, and Zambia, there are already signs that the United States and China are angling for favorable access. There seems to be a new political consensus in the United States that dependence on Chinese supply chains is bad, and that the US should “decouple” from China. The parallels with oil are hard to parse, however. While available oil reserves during the Cold War were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Arab world, raw materials are scattered throughout the world. While securing reserves of oil dominated US strategic thinking in the Cold War, today it is the “downstream” component—refining raw materials and manufacturing them into finished products—that likely poses the biggest strategic concern. Currently, semiconductor manufacturing is concentrated in Taiwan, while refining critical minerals like lithium and manufacturing finished products is heavily concentrated in China. While the United States could not create new domestic oil reserves during the Cold War, there is no reason why the US cannot build out its own semiconductor manufacturing base. So while competition over resources is likely—provided the US and China maintain their current, confrontational course—it is possible that it won’t produce the kinds of interventions and instability witnessed during the oil era of the Cold War.