Everyone’s got their personal reasons for taking action. For me, deciding to jump in front of a moving drill ship was not only about protecting the environment and stopping climate change, it was also about peace. Our addiction to oil fuels conflict, corrupts governments and destroys lives.
I grew up in a house that was half-British and half-Iranian, with each blaming the other for pretty much everything. From imperialism to bad food, the list was never-ending, symptoms of an unhappy marriage using cultural difference to fight petty arguments.
There was, however, one story that kept coming up, over and over again. It went back to the 1950’s – long before I was born - and it was to do with BP and oil.
BP at that time was known as the Anglo-Iranian oil company, though a year later it would change its name to British Petroleum. In Iran, the company was happy to have its acronym misunderstood as “Benzin-e Pars”, which literally translates to Iranian Petrol.
BP was then running the world’s biggest oil refinery at Abadan port on the Persian Gulf, extracting, refining and exporting the oil while giving only 16% of the profits to the Iranians – and even that after an opaque accounting process.
But the early 50’s saw a worldwide movement for decolonisation and independence. The Iranians started to push harder for a fairer deal for ‘their’ oil, and BP and the British government were getting worried.
Oil was – and still is today – a security issue. As a limited resource vital for military industries and the fuel on which our economies, as presently constructed, are designed to run, politicians will do almost anything to secure a guaranteed and cheap oil lifeline.
So in the summer of 1953, when Mohammad Mossadegh - the democratic leader of Iran - was calling for nationalisation of the country’s oil, BP and the UK government decided that wasn’t an option. It was time to get rid of him and replace him with a pliant dictator.
Well that was my mum’s side of the argument anyway. And I spent much of my life dismissing it as a one-sided view of history, or just another way to blame my dad.
It was only when key documents got declassified later that we all learned that she was right.
BP and the UK government persuaded US President Eisenhower to use his recently formed CIA to topple the Iranian prime minister. The idea was to replace Mossadegh with a monarchy. One that would do BP and the UK government’s bidding and keep the oil flowing, cheap and constant.
As the very first in a long line of CIA coups, ‘Operation Ajax’ as it was known in the US or ‘Operation Boot’ in the UK, reads like something out of a spy novel. It involved briefcases full of cash, paid thugs and rent-a-mob crowds who were organised to mobilise outside the Prime Minister’s residence on the day of the overthrow.
This was all happening around the corner from my great-aunt’s house, where my mum was staying at the time. She talks about the gunfire, looting and stories of torture that were being whispered around later that evening. She also nervously remembers the house being ransacked, while police looked for a rug portrait of Mossadegh, which fortunately someone managed to hide up a garden tree.
Millions were affected by those events in 1953 and the repercussions lasted for decades – in fact they’re still being felt.
When I was born, in 1979, the streets outside our window were pulsing with revolution – an uprising that had its roots in the oil coup. The monarchy that had been put in place in 1953 had become brutally repressive and – unsurprisingly – much of the blame was put on the UK and US governments who had put them there. As a consequence of the social upheaval following the revolution my family had to leave Iran and came eventually to settle in the UK.
1953 was a long time ago, and neither the government politicians nor the BP executives are the same as those who toppled Iran’s democracy for the sake of cheap oil.
But the country of my birth and the wider region that I love continues to be ravaged by oil wars and destabilised by our global addiction to the dirty fuel. And it’s not just the Middle East. From Kyrgyzstan to the Niger Delta, there’s a repeating pattern of oil and conflict. Where large oil companies can manipulate fragile political systems they often do, leaving untold millions the worse for it.
So for me it’s personal. For the sake of the climate, the environment and for peace, I say we should go beyond oil now.
-- James on the Esperanza
Photo: © Will Rose / Greenpeace