Thirty Years Later: How Iran Beat Us, More Than Once

Ted Koppel, who’s career was essentially defined by the Iranian Hostage Crisis, has an interesting piece in the Washington Post today reflecting on the crisis, and how it influenced American and Iranian behavior for the next three decades:

On Jan. 20, 1981, 52 American diplomats, intelligence officers and Marines were finally released after being held hostage for nearly 15 months at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Americans saw it as the end of a long national nightmare. Iranians saw it as a successful phase in what the Pentagon would come to call the Long War.

We were wrong; they were right.

On the face of it, the Iranians achieved what they wanted. President Jimmy Carter had labored with key advisers through the last night of his presidency, desperately trying to bring about the hostages’ release before Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president. The Iranians, though, were determined to humiliate our 39th president and were not about to free the captives on Carter’s watch.

(…)

The Iranians stage-managed the drama down to the last second. Precisely at noon, just as Reagan began to recite the oath of office, the planeload of Americans was permitted to take off. The Iranians’ message was blunt and unambiguous: Carter and his administration had been punished for America’s sins against Iran, and Reagan was being offered a conciliatory gesture in anticipation of improved behavior by Washington.

(…)

Once the hostages were released, however, no reprisal came, and the Iranian leadership offered no evidence of wanting to reconcile.

What the mullahs learned, Koppel contends, is the extent to which the American media tends to obsess over a crisis. For 444 days, the top story of the day, nearly every day, had something to do with the hostages in the American Embassy in Tehran. Koppel’s career went into the stratosphere when he began anchoring a nightly program titled “America Held Hostage,” which later became Nightline. More importantly, the constant media coverage essentially led to the end of Jimmy Cater’s Presidency. The Iranians watched, and they learned, and they acted accordingly:

On Oct. 23, 1983, a truck loaded with explosives was driven into a barracks building in Beirut housing U.S. Marines, who were there as part of an international peacekeeping force. The driver died in the suicide attack, as did 241 American military personnel. Eventually, the bomber was identified as a member of an organization called Hezbollah, which was believed to have been funded and trained by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

By the time even that much was established, Reagan had ordered all U.S. military personnel in Lebanon evacuated to ships of the 6th Fleet, off the coast. A brief time later, those ships received fresh orders and sailed off.

One act of terrorism has chased of the “Great Satan,” although in all honesty those Marines probably never should have been there in the first place considering they were sitting ducks in the middle of a civil war. After the U.S. withdrawal, the conflict entered a new phase:

Just as hostages had proved useful to Iran during the Carter administration, they would be used again to manipulate the Reagan White House. Dozens of Americans and Europeans were kidnapped in Lebanon and held hostage during the early and mid-1980s. Again, Hezbollah was believed responsible, and Iranian patronage was more firmly established.

In relatively short order, these tactics would draw the Reagan administration into one of the more bizarre covert negotiations in recent history. Among those kidnapped in Beirut was the CIA’s station chief, William Francis Buckley. He was held and tortured for 15 months, and at one point he was reportedly taken to Iran. He died in captivity. Reagan’s distress over Buckley’s ordeal in particular, and over the fate of other American captives, was a factor behind the Iran-contra affair.

Far from punishing the Iranians, Washington arranged for Israel to sell weapons to Iran. The Israeli stockpiles would be secretly replenished by the United States, which was legally prohibited from selling directly to Iran. In return, Iran would free some hostages. Finally, Iran’s payment for the weapons would be used to buy arms for anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, thereby circumventing a congressional ban on sales to the contras there. That was the icing on the cake.

It was a complete disaster, both politically and from a foreign policy perspective. A President who had said he would never negotiate with terrorists at first tried to deny that his Administration had, in fact, negotiated with terrorists. Then, when the truth came out the whole world knew that taking an American hostage would eventually lead the United States to find a way to negotiate with you. It sent the wrong signal, and, as Koppel notes, it set the stage for 30 years of bad policy:

There was every reason to celebrate the release of those 52 Americans on Jan. 20, 1981. But what Iran learned then and has applied in the decades since has been costly for the United States. Here we are, 30 years after what we thought was the conclusion of a crisis, still wondering if the end will ever be in sight.

I’m not sure what the answer to the Iran problem would be, either then or now. Military retaliation in the wake of the hostage crisis would have been satisfying on a visceral level, but it’s unlikely that it would have led to the downfall of the Islamic Republic and it very well have could have led to a conflict that would have distracted us from the far more important task of dealing with the Soviet Union. Moreover, by the time the hostages were released Iran and Iraq were locked in a conflict that would last ten years and drain the resources of both countries. Quite honestly, it was in our interests for that conflict to continue as long as possible, which is why we were covertly selling weapons to Saddam Hussein. Getting ourselves involved in that conflict directly would have been a mistake.

Don Surber and other bloggers seem to be accusing Koppel of attacking President Reagan, but quite honestly I don’t see it. His criticism of the arms-for-hostages deal is spot-on and largely correct. Negotiating with Iran was not bad in and of itself, selling them arms in exchange for freeing hostages was both a tactical and a strategic error. It sent messages to people who would do us harm that. even when we have a strong leader, the United States will still ultimately back down. That’s one of the reasons Saddam Hussein tried the “human shield” tactic in the face of an impending U.S. attack in 1991. Thankfully, President Bush didn’t fall for that one.

Leaving the Reagan criticism aside, though, I think Koppel’s overall point is largely correct. Thirty years after the hostages came home, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with Iran.

FILED UNDER: Doug Mataconis, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, World Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    It’s worth stepping back, in any conversation of Iran, to discuss the overthrow of their democratic government by the US and UK and subsequent restoration of the Shah monarchy. All of which was done to control oil rights for western companies. There’s good reason for the Iranians to hate and mistrust us, seeing as how we’ve treated them incredibly badly. Without our meddling the ayotollah would have no power in Iran today.

    This is a vital lesson- every time we meddle in the middle east, playing god and redrawing their political systems with bloodshed, it goes badly. We need to just be hands off and let them deal with their internal problems without us forcing the results. It’ll be ugly, and a good portion of the blood will be our fault, but it’s the only way for the area to deal with its deep problems and begin advancing socially. And we’ll ever do it so long as we’re so critically dependent on oil.




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  2. michael reynolds says:

    The bloggers are freaking because the truth about Lebanon doesn’t match the amnesiac/Orwellian rewrite of the Reagan myth upon which all of conservatism rests.

    As to retaliation, oh we retaliated. We helped Saddam kill a hell of a lot of Iranians. And the Iranians ended up with a Gulf now bristling with American weapons in the hands of people that have serious hates on for Iran. Then there was the Iraq war which, had George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld not managed with the deftness of a three year old playing with blocks, would have place US bases right smack on their borders.

    Basically later Reagan, George HW Bush, and Clinton did a pretty good job of making Iran pay. And then came George W. Sigh.




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  3. ponce says:

    If America hadn’t invaded Iraq and hadn’t bungled the war in Afghanistan we could have credibly threatened Iran.

    As it is, Iran knows everything threat we makes is empty.




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  4. Modulo Myself says:

    Fascinating that 30 years after the overthrow of the despotic Shah and the hostage crises, America really has no clue what the Iranian ‘problem’ really is. Are they oppressing us? Will they attack us soon? Very soon? With WMDs? With balsa-wood drones? Community centers? Or just make a certain high number of people feel really impotent for the day? All one can say is that at one point, after appearing out of the void, they made us feel very very bad.

    Another perspective is that America has solved the Iranian ‘problem’, and much to its liking. Use it a catch-all evil, endorse a war, cut secret deals using a Christian moron like North, generate think-tank jobs, PowerPoint presentations, a few papers, inflating bank accounts, television exposure, and maybe, maybe someday get a full-on war out of it, to dazzle zombies back home. And the war doesn’t even have to be won: nothing Americans like more now than losing, because then you get the lies and the resentment and the random bullying and violence, the Ronald Reagan special…




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  5. superdestroyer says:

    As can be seen from the first few comments, no one has any idea of how to deal with Iran. The U.S. can either ignore Iran while Iran manipulates Arab speakers or the U.S. can resisit a country that is not sane. Since there is no negotiating with a country that is not the least bit rational (see North Korea) there is little that the U.S. can do.




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  6. Yuri says:

    The crusade in the middle east is going to last 100 years more. Maybe until oil continues to be important. Now it’s motivated by both religion and economically.




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  7. Tlaloc raises a key point: we frequently act as if US involvements with Iran started with the Revolution and as an act of provocation by Iran against the US while ignoring the CIA’s role in the coup that ousted the democratically elected PM, Mosaddegh, in 1953.

    Modulo Myself also rightly notes that the exact nature of the threat from Iran is not as obvious as many people try to make it out to be.




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  8. gk1 says:

    What’s to figure out about Iran and the mullah’s? They have done more damage to their country and their future than any war we could possibly bring against them. They have shown the rest of the middle east what happens when you let a bunch of religious morons run a country into the crapper. Sure they can be trouble makers feeding weapon’s to hezbollah and iraqi al qaeda, but its obvious they are their own worst enemy. The mullah’s will wind up like Ceaceascu in Romania, hastily lined up against the wall and shot while a thousand cell phone cameras get the footage.




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  9. PD Shaw says:

    Koppel is probably right for the most part, but commits the original sin of American commentary, assuming that the hostage crisis was primarily about U.S. It was primarily about a fight btw/ factions within the revolutionary movement and how Khomeini was able to use the hostage crisis to sideline majorities.

    Similarly, the Crisis of 1952-53 was primarily about domestic politics, and the outcry from liberals, the military and the religious establishment in response to Musaddiq taking dictatorial powers.




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  10. Steve Plunk says:

    It’s funny how you can get beat yet still be much better off. gk1’s point is absolutely correct. If a dog bites you did the dog win or is it still sleeping outside in the dog house? Iran is still a pathetic state with little prospect for success unless it’s government is overthrown.

    Another point is how do they win and we lose because we showed our humanity and didn’t just start bombing? We could have but our respect for human life, ours and theirs, allowed much of what has happened to happen.




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  11. M. says:

    Good point, Tlaloc, Steven. Since the US helped oust Mossadegh in 1953, that means that everything Iran does until the Sun goes nova is our fault. They certainly aren’t human beings who have some control over their own decisions, or anything.




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  12. anjin-san says:

    > We could have but our respect for human life, ours and theirs,

    Too bad this respect did not extend to the thousand of innocents in Iraq we killed 🙁




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  13. Alex Knapp says:

    Good point, Tlaloc, Steven. Since the US helped oust Mossadegh in 1953, that means that everything Iran does until the Sun goes nova is our fault. They certainly aren’t human beings who have some control over their own decisions, or anything.

    Well, let’s see… not only did we support the coup, but we also actively kept the Shah in power, and the Shah ruled with terror, secret police, and the whole nine yards. Then once the Shah was overthrown, the United States supplied weapons to Iraq and convinced Saddam Hussein to invade Iran. In the meantime, the United States has used its political and economic capital to eliminate Iran’s ability to trade with the rest of the world, perpetuating economic crisis.

    I’m not saying that the Mullahs are a good group of folks by any means, but Jesus Christ, maybe Iran would stop considering us to be an enemy if we stopped trying to interfere with their internal politics, stifle their economy, and arm their enemies….




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  14. matt says:

    Superdestroyer : Iran is nothing like North Korea and if you could be possibly bothered to get past your white power complex you’d quickly realize that Persians aren’t an inferior animalistic race…

    Irans major cities are very modern and that is starting to have an effect on the more rural areas as people move into the cities (much like here). The green revolution attempt gives us much insight into how Iran’s people are advancing as a society..




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  15. ponce says:

    “the exact nature of the threat from Iran is not as obvious as many people try to make it out to be.”

    The “threat” from Iran is it prevents America and its “allies” in the region controlling everything that goes on there.




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  16. gk1 says:

    Good point Alex. If it wasn’t for Jimmy Carter green lighting Saddam’s ill considered invasion, supplying weapons and military intel who knows what our relations would be like. But I would have to think if Iran concentrated on improving the life of its people instead of being some grubby power broker, Iran and the rest of the middle east would be better off.




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  17. An Interested Place says:

    @M.: You ever hear of that little thing called blowback? The point isn’t that everything is our fault until the sun goes nova…but actions have consequences, and if the US hadn’t done what it did in ’53, the mullahs may never have come to power in the first place…a lesson that we should learn as we attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries that don’t do what we like…




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  18. PD Shaw says:

    AIP, does “blowback” apply to the Russians as well, or is this some self-centered sort of American thing only?




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  19. anjin-san says:

    > improving the life of its people instead of being some grubby power broker, Iran and the rest of the middle east would be better off.

    You mean doing things like making sure everyone in their country can see a doctor every once and a while?




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  20. gk1 says:

    ankin-san, you mean like cuba? No, not really. Most of the good doctors are fleeing that shit hole as fast as their rubber rafts will take them.




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  21. anjin-san says:

    gk1,

    So I guess you are saying the greatest country in the world can’t get it done, and we should limit ourselves, using Cuba as a benchmark.

    I have more faith in our country, sorry you don’t share it.




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  22. superdestroyer says:

    Matt,

    Iran is similar to North Korea in that they do not depend on outsiders. Supposedly, Iran is very hard to gather good intelligence since they are xenophobic. thus, the U.S and other countries have real problems getting a real picture of what is going on. Iran also tries to influence their neighbors.

    Also, the leaders of Iran, like the leaders in North Korea, seem detached from reality.




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  23. steve says:

    “Also, the leaders of Iran, like the leaders in North Korea, seem detached from reality.”

    Yet they ended up in pretty good shape in their region. They have no effective counterweight anymore in the region.

    Steve




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  24. gk1 says:

    If my iranian ex-pat friends are correct we know plenty about Iran and its many weaknesses. We may not have an ideal picture of the internal problems with the mullah’s and the iranian military but we know how brittle and weak they are. One good bus strike or a spike in tomato prices can cause a collapse. Like North Korea’s collapse its a matter of when, not if.




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  25. An Interested Place says:

    “AIP, does ‘blowback’ apply to the Russians as well, or is this some self-centered sort of American thing only?”

    Umm. it would be option #1…




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  26. ponce says:

    “If my iranian ex-pat friends are correct we know plenty about Iran and its many weaknesses.”

    I don’t think beneficiaries of Iran’s brutal former monarchy can credibly claim much understanding of how Iran “works.”




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  27. wr says:

    Does blowback apply to the Russians as well? Gee, that’s hard. How many terrorist attacks have there been in Russia from Chechens outraged over the invasion? What sorts of problems do they have with the former Soviet territories?




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  28. gk1 says:

    What, Iran is in “pretty good shape”? Human bombs in black pajamas and empty rhetoric about shutting down the gulf does not a superpower make. We sank their “navy” in an afternoon and can do it again if need be. I think the best course is what we are doing now, indifferent containment.




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  29. anjin-san says:

    > We sank their “navy” in an afternoon and can do it again if need be.

    Did our experience in Iraq teach us nothing? Yea, we can defeat any military in the field. Then the unexpected complications and unintended consequences start to kick in.




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  30. matt says:

    Iran is similar to North Korea in that they do not depend on outsiders.

    That is utterly and completely wrong. Iran has the 18th largest economy in the world and even with the sanctions levied on them by the UN they are still doing quite a lot of exporting and importing of items. Iran is believed to be sitting on the second largest natural gas reserve in the world (third in oil reserves). Meanwhile North Korea is ranked 95th and is pretty much getting by on handouts from China and occasionally the UN/USA.

    “Supposedly, Iran is very hard to gather good intelligence since they are xenophobic. thus, the U.S and other countries have real problems getting a real picture of what is going on. Iran also tries to influence their neighbors. ”

    That is very wrong too and can be easily proven by the fact that we were able to hit them with the stuxnet worm. If you would spend a little time researching the worm you’d quickly realize that we’d have to know quite a lot about their top secret nuclear industry in order to develop such a specially targeted worm. I can easily call some of my fiancees relatives in Tehran right now if I wanted (she’s half Iranian)…

    “Also, the leaders of Iran, like the leaders in North Korea, seem detached from reality.”

    You’re confusing figureheads for leaders. The president is a puppet of the supreme council (people are starting to wake up to that fact hence the green revolution). Even the Supreme leader of Iran can be ousted by the council if he strays too far. So every time you see Mahmoud ahmahwatever up there spewing the crazy it’s basically the same as Michelle Bachman frothing about census conspiracies. Neither really have much power in the end and both answer to higher authorities. The real leaders in Iran are playing a several decade long game of chess with the USA and that hasn’t changed.




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  31. anjin-san says:

    Matt… you can’t be surprised that the right is utterly ignorant about Iran. These knuckleheads have no clue about what a large role Persia has played in history. Good luck educating them.




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  32. sam says:

    @Matt

    “You’re confusing figureheads for leaders. ”

    From my reading, it appears that the Revolutionary Guards are really running the country. They seem to have their hands in every major Iranian industry, which might strike one as odd for a military organization:

    Political clout and military might are not only attributes of today’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is also a major financial player. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 2007 that the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country after the war with Iraq, now has ties to over one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital. Former CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has linked the guards to university laboratories, weapons manufacturers–including Defense Industries Organization–and companies connected to nuclear technology. Khalaji, of the Washington Institute, lists the Bahman Group, which manufactures cars for Mazda, among guard-owned companies. And Wehrey writes that “the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market.” The engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded over 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says. [Council on Foreign Relations, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards]




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  33. sam says:
  34. Davebo says:

    If my iranian ex-pat friends are Chalabi is correct we know plenty about Iran and its many weaknesses.

    No George, our children are not learning.




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  35. TG Chicago says:

    gk1 said: “What’s to figure out about Iran and the mullah’s? They have done more damage to their country and their future than any war we could possibly bring against them. They have shown the rest of the middle east what happens when you let a bunch of religious morons run a country into the crapper.”

    In what way has Iran been run into the crapper? Their per-capita GDP is above the world’s average:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita

    One can reasonably make the argument that, given their oil reserves, they should be doing much better than they are. But it’s ridiculous to claim that they’re “in the crapper”.

    Anyway, much of the discussion is tangential to the post. Is there anyone on the right who is willing to defend the decisions to a) cut and run from Lebanon and b) engage in negotiations with terrorists (Iran-Contra)? The right considers both of those things to be taboo, but they also consider Reagan to be an infallible servant of God. How do you resolve this dissonance?




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  36. matt says:

    “Good point, Tlaloc, Steven. Since the US helped oust Mossadegh in 1953, that means that everything Iran does until the Sun goes nova is our fault. They certainly aren’t human beings who have some control over their own decisions, or anything.”

    First off there are a lot of people in the south who are still pissed about the civil war (war of northern aggression etc) and that happened 150ish years ago. So you’re delusional if you think we as a country wouldn’t keep a grudge if the roles were reversed. Meanwhile our meddling didn’t stop in 1953 but continued with our support of the brutal shah and then after his overthrow the support of Iraq and trust me the Iranians are still pissed about our supplying of chemical weapons (oops I meant medical chemicals) to Iraq during and before the Iraq Iran war (plenty of pictures of Rumsfield and crew shaking Saddam’s hand after weapon deliveries and Detroit even gave the key to the city to Saddam). We also continue to support terrorist organizations in their attempts to overthrow the government. So frankly it’s a little more complex then you’re trying to let on..




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  37. matt says:

    TG : Yeah that’s why I pointed out that despite the UN sanctions Iran has the 18th largest GDP in the world..




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  38. matt says:

    Which is why Saudi Arabia is doing everything they can to get the world lined up against Iran because with the Saudi oil fields drying up the Persians are going to be in a solid position to exert their economic power over the Arabs and that scares them shitless..




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  39. Steve Plunk says:

    I doubt the Saudi oil fields are drying up. Ever notice they find oil faster than we use it? By keeping the idea of peak oil in the news they keep prices higher than they would be otherwise.




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  40. matt says:

    They’ve been using injection methods on Ghawar Field for some time (some reports as much as 7 million gallons of seawater a day). Currently Ghawar field is seeing 30-55% water cut which is not a good sign for the potential lifespan of the field..




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  41. matt says:

    Oh just for the record I have no doubt they’ll find more oil supplies. Hell the unconventional oil available in Canada is staggering but oil prices aren’t quite high enough to warrant harvesting. I just see the Saudis blowing through their supply quicker then the Iranians…




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