The Post War Landscape of Unanticipated Outcomes (1918-1926)


Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

In the wake of WWI, for the first time, Britain appeared as the absolute master of the situation in Iran and the Persian Gulf[1]. All its major imperial rivals in the region – the German, Ottoman, and Russian empires – had collapsed, thus eliminating the long maintained anxiety about defending the Indian colony from hostile encroachments. The Royal Navy dominated the Persian Gulf having subjugated the littoral Arab city states as its vassals, and the British Army surrounded the prized oil installations of Khuzestan with more than a half a million troops that continued to be deployed in the Near and Middle East[2].
In Iran the Qajar state was in a position of near total dependence on the good graces of His Majesty’s Government. The state finances were good as bankrupt and its outdated bureaucracy was close to total disarray[3]. The fragmented, mal-trained, and small military forces were being paid not out of an empty treasury but from loans obtained with ever more difficulty from the country’s only, British owned, Imperial Bank[4]. Given the increasingly desperate state of the country after the Constitutional Revolution and the war time occupation, there was little tax collection and the Royal Court was heavily indebted to Britain and Russia to foot its daily expenses, let alone to invest in any meaningful economic development or relief efforts for the impoverished population[5]. In the south Britain had set up the South Persia Rifles (SPR) under Sir Percy Sykes to combat German and Ottoman incursions, and to subdue local resistance and brigandage[6]. In Khuzestan APOC had consolidated its operations and was planning major expansions there and internationally, relying for protection on British troops in Mesopotamia, as well as its local alliances with the virtually autonomous tribal chieftains[7].
At the global level, the British diplomatic machine was being conducted, for the first time, by a set of politicians who specialized in the so-called ”Eastern question” and the newly coined “Middle East” region[8]. With Nathaniel Curzon at the helm of the Foreign Office (FO) successive coalition governments were content to leave strategic decisions to the legendary and cantankerous politician[9] who was viewed, not least by himself, as the ultimate expert on the “Persian Question”[10]. In setting up his Iran policy Curzon was assisted by a succession of equally prominent and highly regarded diplomats acting as Ministers in Tehran, such as Percy Cox (1918-1920), and Percy Loraine (1921-1926)[11], who were crucial in helping to ward off American attempts to gain a foothold there, and preparing the ground for making Iran effectively a British protectorate[12]. Such an outcome would have accomplished the long held dream of securing the western approaches to India[13], and as good as guaranteed the continued monopoly of British control over the oil resources of Iran and the Persian Gulf area.
Under these circumstances the post WWI years ought to have been the golden years of unchallenged British hegemony in Iran. Ironically, this proved not to be the case, and by mid 1920s the whole edifice had been altered beyond recognition. Tremendous internal divisions and disagreements within the sprawling British foreign policy establishment scuttled the hegemonic appearance of monolithic unity in formulating and implementing imperial policies. The eruption of nationalism and mass politics in Iran proved difficult to handle for Victorian and Edwardian politicians who had spent years dismissing any such political agency among the despised “Persians”. The paranoia and fear of Bolshevik subversion significantly curtailed the British freedom of unilateral action. By the end of this period the moribund Qajar dynasty had collapsed and was replaced by the aggressively centralizing Pahlavi dynasty under the military strongman Reza Shah, who proceeded to depose the British local tribal protégés Sheikh Khaz’al and the Bakhtiyari Khans, and maneuvered for the newly established national army to take control of the Khuzestan province. The financial leverage that Britain had used effectively to enfeeble the state since late 19th century was also removed as APOC was forced to settle its arrear royalty payments; the crushing national debts to Russia and Britain were alleviated when the Soviets forgave the Tsarist debts to Iran; and Iran managed the opportunity to settle some of its outstanding British debts. By 1929 the British owned Imperial Bank was forced to cede its monopoly over currency issue and financial transactions to the newly established Bank Melli (National Bank). APOC found itself in similar conundrum in Khuzestan. There was frustration among Company directors at the slow pace of the British Government outlining a global oil strategy following the war, and the lack of clarity over the boundaries of its political interference in the operations and the finances of the Company[14]. In Iran, the Company’s expanding operations ran into strategic difficulties with its labor force after the end of the War. By the mid-1920s discontent among the indigenous workers, as well as its skilled Indian laborers had reached worrying degrees. The technical, organizational, and commercial transformations of the industry now required a different form of labor discipline and industrial culture that its existing practices simply did not provide adequately. Employee recruitment of European and especially British employees was becoming a major challenge, as were managing the rising frictions with local populations in Khuzestan, especially once the tribal allies who had hitherto mediated these relations to the benefit of the Company had been removed by the central government and replaced by bureaucrats and military officers. The fears of spillover from popular revolts in Iraq and India, and the politicization of workers through communist and nationalist sympathies were constant concerns. The sudden incursion of the Iranian army in 1924, and the establishment of the nascent bureaucracy in Khuzestan unexpectedly curtailed the near total sway of the Company in the management of local provincial affairs. With the British Government reconfiguring its strategy toward Iran, the Oil Company likewise had to find a new modus operandi to continue successfully to expand its operations.
In summary, less than a decade after the end of WWI, Britain was facing a wholly unanticipated new paradigm, not only in Iran and in Khuzestan, but also regionally in Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East, as well as in home country itself (see chapter 4). It had to adapt itself to the radically new state of affairs beyond its controls, and devise new long-term strategies. The unforeseen circumstances were the result of three factors: first, the fear of the rising Soviet threat and the radicalization of mass politics in Iran; second, the unanticipated vigor of popular resistance and of Iranian nationalism (overlapping with similar uprisings throughout much of its dominions), which itself was in large part a reaction against British proto-colonial policies; and third, the structural economic and strategic weakness of post war Britain, which curtailed the state’s range of abilities during a period of severe austerity. All three factors were directly and indirectly tied to the global shifts that will be discussed in chapter 4: the rise of mass politics, the changing role of the state, the coming to prominence of middle class professional elites and intelligentsia, and the structural shifts in capitalism. The controversy that broke out in 1925-1926 over the new Bazaar of Abadan laid at the center of these transnational, regional, and national shifts and played its part in shaping the new oil habitus that emerged in Khuzestan’s oil complex. Chapter 4 investigates the structural and global changes that were precipitated by the WWI, and led to the emergence of the ‘social question’, with all that it entailed. In this chapter we will telescope into the narrower scales of the national context in Iran, the provincial dynamic in Khuzestan, and the local eye of the storm in Abadan to link together these different scales and to further investigate how the oil complex was assembled in this formative period. I will first discuss the context of British policy toward Iran, as it affected the oil operations. I will then analyze this dynamic from the Iranian perspective, again as they relate to the oil complex. The reverberations of these larger trends in Abadan and the oil producing areas of Khuzestan will be the topic of the next section. In concluding with a discussion of the Bazaar controversy I will attempt to demonstrate how the local struggles of oil workers and the urban population affected the manner in which the oil complex took shape in this formative period.



1. See Roger Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 19021922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); Abd al-Reza Houshang Mahdavi, Siyasat-e Khareji-e Iran dar Dowran-e Pahlavi, 1300-1357 (Tehran: Alburz, 2001), 1–52; Abd al-Reza Houshang Mahdavi, Sahnehayee az Tarikh Mo’aser Iran (Tehran: Elmi, 1998), 185–204; Houshang Sabahi,
British Policy in Persia, 1918-1925 (London: Frank Cass, 1990); W. Taylor Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); William J Olson, Anglo-Iranian Relations during World War I (London: Frank Cass, 1984); Homa Katouzian, State and Society in Iran (London: IB Tauris, 2000); John Marlowe, The Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962), 54–122; Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Valentine Chirol, The Middle Eastern Question: Or, Some Political Problems of Indian Defence (London: J. Murray, 1903); Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1971, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 50–130.

2. Adelson, London and the Middle East, 171.

3. Arthur C Millspaugh, The American Task in Persia (New York: Century Co., 1925); Mosharrafoddowleh Hassan Khan Naficy, “L’Impot et la Vie Economique et Sociale en Perse” (PhD Dissertation, Universite de Paris, 1924); Majid Yektayi, Tarikh-e Darayi-e Iran (History of Iranian Finances), 2nd ed. (Tehran: Entesharat-e Parviz, 1961); Hossein Khan Moshar-Ghadimi, “Les Finances Publiques de la Perse” (PhD Dissertation, Université de Paris, 1922); Ali Gheissari, Iranian Intellectuals in the 20th Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 49–50; Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia (New York: Century Co., 1920); Shaul Bakhash, Iran: Monarchy, Bureaucracy and Reform under the Qajars, St. Anthony’s Middle East Monographs 8 (London: Ithaca Press, 1978).

4. Geoffrey Jones, Banking and Empire in Iran: Volume 1: The History of the British Bank of the Middle East, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Cronin, The Army and the
Creation of the Pahlavi State in Iran, 1910-1926; Malek al-Sho’ara Bahar, Tarikh-e Mokhtasar-e Ahzab-e Siasi-ye Iran (History of Iran’s Political Parties), vol. 1 (Tehran: Jibi, 1978), 46–47.

5. Moustafa Fateh, The Economic Position of Persia (London: P.S.King and Son, 1926), 66–68; Hassan Mojdehi, “Arthur C. Millsapugh’s Two Missions to Iran and Their Impact on American Iranian Relations” (Ball State University, 1975), 44–45; Naficy, “L’Impot et la Vie Economique et Sociale en Perse,” 54–55; R. M. Burrell, ed., Iran Political Diaries 1881-1965 14 Volume Set (London: Archive Editions Ltd, 1997), Vol.7.

6.Percy Sykes, “South Persia and the Great War,” The Geographical Journal 58, no. 2 (1921): 101–18; Cronin, The Army and the Creation of the Pahlavi State in Iran, 1910-1926; Monireh Razi, Polis-e Jonoub-e Iran (South Persia Rifles) (Tehran: Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, 2002); Florida Safiri,

7. Polis-e Jonoub-e Iran- SPR (South Persia Rifles) (Tehran: Nashr-e Tarikh-e Iran, 1985). Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:274–311.

8. Chirol, The Middle Eastern Question; Adelson, London and the Middle East, 22–50.

9. On evaluating Curzon’s role on Middle East policymaking, see Adelson, London and the Middle East; Sabahi, British Policy in Persia; Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire; Christopher N. B. Ross, “Lord Curzon and E. G. Brown Confront the ‘Persian Question,’” The Historical Journal 52, no. 2 (May 15, 2009): 385–411.

10. George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, 2 vols. (London: Elibron, 2005 [1893]).

11. John Townsend, Proconsul to the Middle East: Sir Percy Cox and the End of Empire (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010); Gordon Waterfield, Professional Diplomat; Sir Percy Loraine of Kirkharle, Bt., 18801961. (London: Murray, 1973); Roberta Pearce, “Cox, Sir Percy,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), ; Elizabeth Monroe, “Loraine, Sir Percy Lyham (1880-1961),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), .

12 Mojdehi, “Arthur C. Millsapugh’s Two Missions to Iran and Their Impact on American Iranian Relations,” 38–41.

13 George Nathaniel Curzon, The Place of India in the Empire: Being an Address Delivered before the Philosophical Institute of Edinburgh (london: J.Murray, 1909) .

14 Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:350–396.

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