Britain Says US Planned to Seize Oil in '73 Crisis


By Lizette Alvarez

New York Times
January 2, 2004

The United States government seriously contemplated using military force to seize oil fields in the Middle East during the Arab oil embargo 30 years ago, according to a declassified British government document made public on Thursday.

The top-secret document says that President Richard M. Nixon was prepared to act more aggressively than previously thought to secure America's oil supply if the embargo, imposed by Arab nations in retaliation for America's support for Israel in the 1973 Middle East war, did not end. In fact, the embargo was lifted in March 1974. The declassified British memorandum said the United States considered launching airborne troops to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, but only as a "last resort."

President Nixon's defense secretary, James R. Schlesinger, delivered the warning to Lord Cromer, the British ambassador in Washington at the time. In the document, Lord Cromer was quoted as saying of Mr. Schlesinger, "it was no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force."

The seizure of the oil fields was "the possibility uppermost in American thinking when they refer to the use of force," the memorandum said. The potential for such a military action was taken so seriously by British intelligence services that a report was written listing the most likely scenarios for the use of American force in the Middle East and the consequences of each. The report, dated Dec. 12, 1973, was titled "UK Eyes Alpha" and was sent to Prime Minister Edward Heath.

The memorandum was one of hundreds of documents released by Britain's National Archives under a law that makes government papers public after 30 years. Details of the document were reported on Thursday by The Washington Post.

The exchange between Mr. Schlesinger and Lord Cromer came on the heels of the war between Israel and Egypt and Syria that began in October 1973. As retaliation for American support for Israel in the war and in an effort to sway world opinion, Arab members of OPEC imposed the oil embargo.

The embargo led to petroleum shortages around the world and to sharp increases in the price of gas in the United States. As recounted by Lord Cromer, Mr. Schlesinger told him the United States was unwilling to abide threats by "underdeveloped, underpopulated" countries.

The document did not rule out the possibility that Washington would consider pre-emptive strikes if Arab governments, "elated by the success of the oil weapon," began issuing greater demands.

"The U.S. government might consider that it could not tolerate a situation in which the U.S. and its allies were in effect at the mercy of a small group of unreasonable countries," the document said.

As outlined in the memorandum, military action would be relatively straightforward: two brigades were estimated to be needed to seize the Saudi oil fields and one each for Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. In the case of Abu Dhabi, the Americans might ask for British military cooperation.The greatest threat would arise in Kuwait, the document said, "where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene."

The British warned in their assessment that any occupation of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi might have to last as long as 10 years. The use of force would also alienate Arab countries and irritate Moscow, although a military confrontation with the Soviet Union would be unlikely, the document said.

Discontent among Western allies was also cited as a possible consequence of military action. "Since the United States would probably claim to be acting for the benefit of the West as a whole and would expect the full support of allies, deep U.S.-European rifts could ensue," it said.A separate document, also just released, illustrated Mr. Heath's profound anger toward Mr. Nixon, when the American president failed to inform the British prime minister he was putting American forces on a global nuclear alert during the Middle East war.

Mr. Heath went so far as to suggest that Mr. Nixon issued the alert in an attempt to deflect attention away from Watergate, which was in full swing in the fall of 1973.

"An American President in the Watergate position apparently prepared to go to such lengths at a moment's notice without consultation with his allies," Mr. Heath wrote in the second document, adding that there was no "military justification" for putting American forces on a nuclear alert at the time.

The alert was ordered after Leonid I. Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, warned that he might send Soviet troops into the Middle East after Israel crossed the Suez Canal.

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