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Mon 16 September 2019
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It’s not just a wealth of natural resources that makes Iran such a target, but the fact they’re nationalised explains Adi MacArtney


“When I want to understand what is happening today or try to decide what will happen tomorrow, I look back.” Omar Khayyam (Iranian poet)

The current wave of aggressive posturing by the West towards Iran must be viewed, at least in part, through the potential gains available by the “economic restructuring” of its natural resource wealth.

We have only to look at the physical wealth redistributions of Iraq and Afghanistan to inform us of how such post-war resource acquisitions proceed, and their lingering consequences. To believe, once again, that the US and its regional proxies, are acting purely out of moral and security concerns in the Middle East would be dubiously naive. 

It is far too simplistic to state “the West wishes to invade Iran for its resource wealth”. Many countries have vast resource wealth and are not in danger of hostile takeover, so why is Iran?

Golden Curves CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO Curving sands in central northern Iran’s salt desert, the Dasht-e Kavir. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency via the Ikonos-2 satellite, European Space Imaging (EUSI), reproduced with permission and by CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO licence.

Iran is a target as valuable as Iraq, with regards to both oil and mineral resources. Table 1 shows how oil production in Iran compares to other major countries, including the restructured Iraq and Kuwait (the invasion of the Kuwaiti oil fields led to the Iraq War). Oil production in Iran is almost on par with China, yet this oil wealth is barely discussed by the media as a potential reason for the West threatening war. 

Table 1. The top 10 oil producing countries in the world. Data via the US Energy Administration (for the full year of 2018).  Graph by Adi MacArtney

Prior to the Iraq war, Western energy giants were excluded from accessing Iraqi oil wealth due to nationalisation in 1972.

Post-invasion and redistribution saw BP and PetroChina gain ongoing contracts in the vast Rumaila oil field (the third-largest producing field in the world), Royal Dutch Shell moved into the Majnoon oil field (although this was sold on in 2018); Shell and Mitsubishi also gained a $17 billion gas contract in Southern Iraq. It was the war and ‘restructuring’ that allowed this wealth redistribution and ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, BHP and others, all lobbied the governments strongly that any invasion must open the door to foreign companies – and it did. This foreign company access was guaranteed by the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, a document heavily influenced by US advisors.

It is probably inaccurate to state that the West wishes to invade Iran at all, what it wants is access to its oil, gas and mineral markets.

Iranian oil output is one of the highest in the world and has remained nationalised and closed to foreign companies since 1951, under the National Iranian Oil Company, the second largest oil company in the world, with oil production accounting for 12% of Iranian GDP. Further, Iran has vast natural gas reserves, being the third largest natural gas producer in the world manifested in the National Iranian Gas Company and accounting for 16% of proven natural stocks globally.

Table 2. The top 10 dry natural gas producing countries in the world. Data via the US Energy Administration (for the full year of 2017, the most recent year with sufficient data for ranking). Graph by Adi MacArtney

Iran has much more than simply oil and gas wealth, it has 37 billion tons of proven mineral stocks and 57 billion tons of potential reserves. In 2015, these mineral reserves were estimated to be valued at $800 billion and Iran is in the top 10 global mineral producers (Table 3). These mineral stocks are highly diverse, with Iran being the second largest producer of gypsum, as well as being an important producer of gold, lead, manganese, molybdenum, silver, zinc, barite, boron, magnesite, mica, sulphur, pyrite, feldspar, phosphorite and many other industrial valuable minerals. 

Table 3. The top 10 global mineral producers by $ value. Data extracted from World Mining Data 2018 by the International Organising Committee for the World Mining Congresses. Data shown is a snapshot of 2016 and excludes diamonds. Graph by Adi MacArtney

Iran’s oil, gas and mineral wealth and production is not static.

For many of these commodities, Iran has some of the highest growth rates in the world. With vast reserves and an increasing ability to mine and process minerals, Iran has potential for immense future profits. The question is whether this enormous revenue will remain in its own control or be wrested away via international intervention. 

Musa Bay, Iran CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO Iran’s Musa Bay on the northern end of the Persian Gulf. The large geometric structures along the top are evaporation ponds for extracting naturally occurring minerals. Imaged via the Copernicus Sentinel-2A satellite and contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by the European Space Agency, reproduced with permission and by CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO licence.

It is far too simplistic to state “the West wishes to invade Iran for its resource wealth”. Many countries have vast resource wealth and are not in danger of hostile takeover, so why is Iran?

It comes down to nationalisation of industry and the closure of markets to outside interests, markets worth many billions of dollars. The Iranian Constitution prohibits foreign or private ownership of natural resources, just as Iraq’s oil was nationalised by the Iraq National Oil Company prior to the invasion.

It is probably inaccurate to state that the West wishes to invade Iran at all. What it wants is access to its oil, gas and mineral markets. In Iraq, the West was willing to invade in order to force access to these closed markets and the public bought into the lies sold. Whether Western governments have the political will, and whether the public would be as trusting of the spin this time around, remains an open question.

Table 4. Growth rates of selected minerals and natural gas. Data selected between the years 2012 to 2016, extracted from World Mining Data 2018 by the International Organising Committee for the World Mining Congresses. Graph by Adi MacArtney

Certainly, any moralistic or security reason provided by foreign powers for military intervention in Iran, if it involves physical resource redistribution and economic restructuring, must be viewed with the highest degree of scepticism.

Iran is a golden treasure trove in the Middle East; one currently locked by nationalisation of industry combined with a political-religious regime unfriendly to outside influence and reluctant to grant foreign companies access and ownership of its assets. The wealth involved is staggering. 


It is important that the global public are not fooled by weak pretexts and excuses given to break the locks and steal the treasure.

Painting Iran as a nuclear Bogeyman, as happened with Saddam Hussein in the Iraq War, is one such pretext. A gentler and more broadly appealing excuse is painting intervention as liberation from a repressive regime.

If war happens in Iran, it will be about resources.

Iran does indeed have an appalling record on women and LGBT+ rights, but in the words of Arundhati Roy, when speaking about the war in Afghanistan: “It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the US marines are actually on a feminist mission.” 

It is important the global media does not become complicit in selling such weak pretexts as valid and propagating the excuses of violent intervention. If war happens in Iran, it will be about resources.

North East Iran. Alluvial fans formed when streams or rivers reach the plains and spread out. Imaged via the Copernicus Sentinel-2A satellite and contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by the European Space Agency, reproduced with permission and by CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO licence.

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