H-Diplo Article Review 1086- "Shifting Energy-Security Priorities and the Iran-Turkey Pipeline Scheme, 1967-1971"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1086

25 January 2022

John V. Bowlus.  “Shifting Energy-Security Priorities and the Iran-Turkey Pipeline Scheme, 1967-1971.”  Diplomatic History 45:2 (April 2021):  356-382.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhaa088.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Dayna Barnes | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Gregory Brew, Yale University

Scholars of energy geopolitics are accustomed to thinking of oil in terms of production and consumption. Yet as John V. Bowlus makes clear in his new article, oil’s movement plays an equally vital role in shaping the strategic dynamics between states. In the context of the Cold War, geographic and commercial concerns clashed with political priorities and strategic alignments, both between the superpowers and in relations between states in the Global South. Bowlus examines one such relationship, that of Iran and Turkey, in the period immediately preceding the “oil revolution,” when states overtook private oil corporations as the key actors in the global oil economy.[1] Bowlus is a leading expert on oil’s “midstream” dimension.[2] He utilizes archival documents from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and other sources to examine an obscure episode in oil history, using it to illustrate how the transnational flow of energy could influence (and be influenced by) changes in international relations and the economies of energy production. 

In the late 1960s, the Shah of Iran sought to increase his oil revenues and regional prestige. Iran depended on a consortium of Western oil companies to manage its oil industry and sell its oil overseas. The companies, in turn, relied on fleets of oil tankers to move oil from Iran to markets abroad. The closure of the Suez Canal in June 1967 prompted the Shah to explore alternative means of moving Iranian oil. At the same time, Turkey, another pro-Western non-Arab Middle Eastern state, sought to increase its own energy imports. A potential solution was a pipeline connecting Iran’s oil fields to the Turkish city of Iskenderun on the Mediterranean coast. The project, referred to as IRTUP (the Iran-Turkey Pipeline), was attractive to the Shah as it would allow Iranian oil to bypass the Suez Canal while cutting costs and allowing him to increase Iran’s oil exports to major markets in Western and Eastern Europe. This would bring Iran wealth and demonstrate the Shah’s strategic independence as he pursued plans to market Iranian behind the Iron Curtain.

The pipeline had its drawbacks, however. While IRTUP could deliver large amounts of oil over time, tankers were cheaper in the short term. The companies preferred tankers, which allowed them the flexibility to shift oil flows from one producer to another. Tankers also afforded the companies the ability to isolate a producer from the global economy, as they did to Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq after he nationalized the country’s oil industry in 1951. Finally, tankers offered more security. A pipeline could be sabotaged or held hostage by a local government.

The debate over IRTUP was primarily between the Shah and the companies. Turkey, despite its apparently prominent role in the title of the article, plays only a small role in Bowlus’ narrative. The U.S. government emerges as an important player, as the Shah constantly tried to pressure the companies through U.S. officials. Bowlus illustrates a trend of the 1960s in which the United States invariably sided with Iran over the companies, owing to Iran’s importance as a Cold War ally and the significance of oil revenues to the Shah’s military and economic development projects. IRTUP was never considered commercially viable, but the drama surrounding its construction “reveals the shifting dynamics of oil-transit security and the leverage that the Shah had grown to exert over both the Consortium and the U.S. government” (357).

Yet the companies were still able to exert their own influence over the process. Their importance stemmed from their continuing (though slowly disintegrating) control over technical expertise and access to capital. Though he wished for independence from the companies, the Shah relied on them to produce Iranian oil cheaply and he needed their financial support to build IRTUP. For the companies, concerned above all with their bottom line, the costs of the pipeline, which were estimated at $780 million, proved discouraging (373).

Moreover, Bowlus makes it clear that the Shah thought of the energy project as a political tool first and an economic endeavor second. While he explored IRTUP, the Shah also sought closer ties to Israel. He eventually turned away from IRTUP and chose to support a pipeline project which would allow Iranian oil to bypass the Suez Canal via a pipeline connecting Eilat to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast. This pipeline would both be cheaper and tie Iran to Israel, rather than Turkey, a state which saw increased internal political instability in the late 1960s.

The debate over the pipelines had also given the Shah an opportunity to increase his leverage over the companies, which he hounded for higher revenues and increased production. Bowlus’s article illustrates the ability of an oil-producing state like Iran to shape the global oil economy before the oil revolution of the 1970s. The companies, while still a dominant force, had lost much of their former power by the late 1960s. Moreover, the U.S. government had shifted in its own position. Where it had formerly backed the companies, the changing parameters of the Cold War—including the British decision to withdraw from the Persian Gulf in 1967—convinced U.S. officials that mollifying the Shah was strategically important.[3] Moreover, as demand for imported oil in the West increased amid rising Arab nationalism, U.S. officials deemed Iranian oil to be ‘safer’ than oil from Arab producers.

Bowlus’s article is a study of failure—of plans that went astray and of a pipeline that existed on paper, rather than in reality. “The failure of IRTUP was unsurprising, given the array of strategic and commercial forces aligned against it,” he concludes (380). Yet his analysis of what didn’t happen adds to our understanding of what did. In the years before the oil shock of 1973, the United States distanced itself from the major oil companies and leaned on Iran to patrol the Gulf and produce oil for Western consumption. This gave the Shah the financial resources he craved for economic development projects and for military expenditures, which contributed both to Iran’s growing regional profile and the government’s fiscal woes of the 1970s, when the swollen budget was frequently in deficit.

The article displays a strong grasp of major themes and evidence. However, there are a few small errors related to Iran’s oil history. Bowlus notes that Iran did not begin to produce oil in “meaningful quantities” until after a new concession was signed in 1933 (360). While the precise meaning of “meaningful” is open to interpretation, Iran was already producing in excess of 5.9 million tons by 1930.[4] Bowlus also contends that the Soviet Union “blocked” the United States and Great Britain from acquiring oil concessions in the country’s north during the 1944 oil concession scramble. This is not entirely accurate, as it was the Iranian government which suspended concession bidding in late 1944.[5]

While the Shah assured U.S. officials that IRTUP was not one of his “pet projects” (356), in truth the Iranian monarch frequently approached oil from a grandiose, unrealistic vantage, which contributed to his regime’s financial precarity and its ultimate collapse amidst economic crisis and rising popular dissent in the late 1970s. Bowlus provides an insightful, deeply researched, and original look at an obscure episode, a footnote in the history of the twentieth century that is nevertheless deeply revealing of how the production, movement, and consumption of oil shaped the international system.


Gregory Brew is a Henry A. Kissinger Visiting Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University.  He previously served as deputy managing editor of the Texas National Security Review and from 2018 to 2020 was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.  His work has appeared in Texas National Security ReviewIranian Studies, and International History Review.


[1] Christopher Dietrich, Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), Victor McFarland, Oil Powers: A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance (New York: Columbia Press, 2020), Giuliano Garavini, The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] John V. Bowlus, “A Crude Marriage: Iraq, Turkey, and the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline,” Middle Eastern Studies 53, no. 5 (2017): 724-746, and “Connecting Midstream: The Politics of Oil Transportation in the Middle East” (PhD Diss., Georgetown University, 2013).

[3] For more on this shift, see Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah: the United States and Iran in the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] James Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 69.

[5] For an exploration of this episode from the Iranian perspective, see Stephen L. McFarland, “A Peripheral View of the Origins of the Cold War: the Crises in Iran, 1941-47,” Diplomatic History 4:4 (1980): 333-351.