Mending the Lines: Oil, War and Security



Rasmus Christian Elling

Published in: Urban Violence in the Middle East


Abadan town in the 1950’s / Unknown source


While the Iranian labour movement undoubtedly perceived the Company as nothing but an extension of British imperialism, the Company could also be seen in a more nuanced light: as a new form of economic imperialism that was rooted in the colonial empires, but would continue to dominate and evolve in a post-colonial world. Such a nuanced light can appear through a critical reading of the correspondence between the Company, the British government and the British military, especially during a sensitive period such as World War II. Indeed, not only did Company policy sometimes differ from British policy; the Company often operated autonomously and contrary to British recommendations.

This had a direct impact on the question of order and disorder in Khuzestan and ultimately the Company’s failure to secure its foothold in Iran. Kaveh Ehsani has previously warned against overstating the colonialist aspect of the Company, arguing instead that even though its claims to ‘political impartiality were rather farfetched’, the Company ‘nurtured little political appetite’ and that it did not wish to become ‘another East India Company’.[76] As Reidar Visser notes in a study of British companies in nearby Basra, ‘profitability, rather than political concerns, appeared to be the guiding principle when these corporations established their territorial desiderata’.[77] In Abadan, Visser argues, the Company failed to undertake a ‘thorough community-building project’, like those seen in African mining company towns, simply because it was concerned only with ‘the prospect of short-term economic benefit’.[78] Only when strikes restricted oil output in 1929 and 1946 did the Company agree, grudgingly, to make improvements in housing, education and working conditions. The Company was simply not in the business of empire building in the classic colonial sense. This also partly explains why the Company never took full advantage of the nascent Arab nationalist and separatist movements in Khuzestan to turn the Concession into a breakaway state on its own.[79]

For a more nuanced understanding of the nature of Company rule, it is instructive to look at its reaction to the Bahmashir Incident. Firstly, the Company held Abadan’s Chief of Police personally responsible, reprimanding him for incompetence and demanding that he oversee a retrieval of the looted goods from Ahmadabad.[80] The very tone of the correspondence leaves no doubt that the Company considered itself a de facto authority. Secondly, the Company addressed higher authorities in Tehran, including the Iranian Prime Minister. This served a greater purpose: already on the day after the riots, the Company presented the Bahmashir Incident as a final proof of the need to turn not just Abadan but all of Khuzestan into a special military zone.

As usual, the British representative in Tehran backed the Company demand, stating that ‘previous experience’ had shown ‘that the imposition of severe penalties’ and ‘personal mutilation of offenders’, were ‘effective in engendering a respect to the laws and in achieving obedience to them’.[81] Even though he did not ‘recommend’ such severe measures, it was ‘quite clear that until evildoers are brought to book and adequately punished no form of security in this area can be expected’.[82] He concluded that if the police was unable to handle the Bahmashir Incident, then it would also be incapable of acting against looting, which he felt ‘could be expected certainly as a result of air raids or other forms of attack’. The Company itself flat out called for a British military intervention in the Concession possibly in the hope that such an intervention could further consolidate Company authority in Khuzestan. However, the military authorities disagreed with this crucial assessment. On 12 January 1943, the Headquarters reported to the Company:

The disturbance on the 19 Dec. 42 [the Bahmashir Incident] was intercommunal and there is not the slightest evidence or any possibility that the disorder was occasioned by anti-British feeling or directed towards interfering with the work of the Refinery … It is not a British military responsibility to prevent or deal with this sort of disorder. It is purely a matter for the Persian police.[83]

Indeed, the Headquarters concluded, the one battalion already at Abadan was sufficient for dealing with sabotage, and quelling ‘civil disorder’ was not part of its duty. The military instead called on the Company to enforce its own mechanisms of social control:

The best way of preventing a recurrence of fighting and looting between Persians and Indians is for the [Company] to build a really strong fence around the Indian quarters. Up to the 19th Dec. the company had allowed a not very formidable fence to fall into dis-repair [sic] and Persians were in the habit of passing through this fence at any time they wanted.[84]

The Company and several British diplomats objected. As they had already argued immediately after the riots, ‘improving fences’ would not be sufficient, and they felt that the Bahmashir Incident had afforded ‘proof [of] urgent need [in] declaring Abadan [a] Military Area’.[85] In this fashion, the Company directly linked internal security with that of external strategic concerns arising from the war, and thus prevailed with its demand for a heavyhanded military rule in Khuzestan. The Military Zone was established shortly after and lasted for the duration of the war. In the end, the Company, albeit with British diplomatic backing, had succeeded in pushing through their own demands within Iranian bureaucracy. This had more or less been the case for over three decades. The expansion of Company operations in the 1920s coincided with the Iranian central state’s consolidation of power in Khuzestan, and this sometimes worked to Company advantage. In other words, the Company – precisely because Iran was not a colony – never attempted to thoroughly institute any of the organisations and services expected from paternalist corporations in colonial states. However, at the same time, the Company did take the liberty, buttressed by British global power and influence over Iranian politics, to unilaterally institute its own systems of spatial coercion and social control in Khuzestan. The war and incidents such as that in Bahmashir simply offered further tokens of justification. All this notwithstanding, it seems that, by the time of the Bahmashir Incident, the Company had realized that mending fences, instituting martial law and calling for British military intervention could no longer secure its arbitrary rule over the Concession: the empire in whose shadow the Company exercised its dubious power was threatened and would soon crumble. In this sense, the Bahmashir Incident was one of many events leading up to the 1951 nationalisation movement that would uproot the Company from Khuzestan.



Abadan was at once a frontier of capitalist company expansion, of British military and colonial reach and of centripetal processes towards consolidation of the Iranian nation-state.[86] This particular combination of clashing interests and multiple actors and agencies makes it a remarkable arena for the study of historical change. It also makes the study of ‘forgotten’ events of violence such as the Bahmashir Incident ever more pertinent. Recent literature teaches us to see oil as a commodity and artefact not just in concrete physical or abstract macro-economic terms, but also on the social micro-scale: ‘one needs to examine carefully the historical and cultural local contexts of oil’, Michael Watts writes in his study of ‘petro-violence’.[87] In a city such as Abadan, shaped by the forces of hydrocarbon capitalism and with the sole purpose of oil export, socio-economic problems and intercommunal tensions were intimately connected to the Company’s nature as an autonomous entity operating in a tenuous space of exception. Even during a global war in which the Company was under political pressure to continually supply the most strategically important substance for the mechanized British war effort, the Company’s top ‘mission’ was still to secure its own business. To fulfil this mission,  it would use any means available, whether buying off local strongmen or Iranian police, raising its own security forces or compelling Britain, with vague threats of a drop in oil output, to intervene. In short, the Company was first and foremost a business enterprise, and the Concession should not be understood as a mere extension of British imperialism: it was the frontier of another form of imperialism that differed from the colonial legacy upon which it was founded. Company rule in Khuzestan was in this sense a precursor to the ‘extractive enclaving’ of contemporary multinational corporations in frontiers such as Angola and Nigeria. These extractive enclaves are characterized by minimal corporate engagement with host societies and by privatized security, as well as by militarisation, violent conflicts and rampant crime.

While the present-day extractive enclave (particularly the offshore kind) is virtually disconnected from the national grid of the host country, in 1942 the Company was still dependent on restive local populations and problematic migrant labour and forced to take into account the increasingly nationalistic and uncooperative country within which it operated. While the British occupation of Iran further facilitated the Company’s grip on Khuzestan, World War II also added significant strain to an already tense situation. All of these factors played into the Bahmashir Incident. Since there is a direct link between the particular form of urbanisation seen in Abadan and the violence that occurred both on a daily basis and in moments of ‘unrest’, it is important not to reduce these links to a struggle between a native labour movement (Iranian) and a foreign colonizer (the British). The presence of Indian labour disrupts such a simplistic model of analysis. This is also why the Bahmashir Incident is never mentioned in Iranian labour movement accounts or, by extension, in scholarly works: it was seemingly banal, it had no clear idealist agenda and it does not cast Iranian workers in the favourable role of freedom fighters. Compared with the well-studied incidents of labour unrest, the perpetrators of violence cannot be exonerated, so to speak, in the name of anti-British struggles. Yet it is exactly the banality of the event that underscores the central role of violence in the urban politics of Abadan. Violence was not simply the instrument of the oppressor or the weapon of leftist agitators, but omnipresent and multi-directional. For this reason, we also need to take into account the violence, such as the Bahmashir Incident, that did not carry a clear political program. The Company’s presence and operations engendered a space of exception in Khuzestan in which violence was explicitly business as usual: it upheld systems of coercion and differentiation aimed at optimizing industrial output; and it made intercommunal violence not only a possibility, but a latent element of an everyday life conditioned by a new breed of global hegemonic forces.


NOTE: Author’s pre-print version. References should be made to the published version in U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi & N. Lafi (Eds.): Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (New York: Beghahn Books, 2015).


Publication date: 2015, Document Version, Early version, also known as pre-print Citation for published version (APA): Elling, R. C. (2015). On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City. In U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi, & N. Lafi (Eds.), Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (pp. 197-221). New York: Berghahn Books. Space and place, Vol.. 14

  1. Bahmashir, today Bahmanshir, was an English corruption of Bahman-Ardashir, the Persian name of the river that flows past Abadan Island on the north side.
  2. E.g., E. Abrahamian. 1988. ‘The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Labour Movement in Iran, 1941-1953’, in M. Bonine and N. Keddie (eds), Continuity and Change in Modern Iran, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 211-231; K. Bayat. 2007. ‘With or Without Workers in Reza Shah’s Iran: Abadan, May 1929’, in T. Atabaki (ed.), The State and the Subaltern: Modernization, Society and the State in Turkey and Iran, 111-121; S. Cronin. 2010. ‘Popular Politics, the New State and the Birth of the Iranian Working Class: The 1929 Abadan Oil Refinery Strike’, Middle Eastern Studies 46(5), 699-732; M. E. Dobe. 2008. A Long Slow Tutelage in Western Ways of Work: Industrial Education and the Containment of Nationalism in Anglo-Iranian and ARAMCO, 1923-1963, doctoral dissertation, New Brunswick: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; W. M. Floor. 1985. Labour Unions, Law and Conditions in Iran (1900-1941), Durham: University of Durham; and H. Ladjevardi. 1985. Labour Unions and Autocracy in Iran, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. Cronin, Dobe and Floor have given brief attention to the Indian element in their respective works. Unions and Autocracy in Iran, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. Cronin, Dobe and Floor have given brief attention to the Indian element in their respective works.
  3. With its basis in materials from the BP Archive (BPA), the British National Archives (BNA) and the India Office Archives (IOA), this study admittedly suffers from a lack of Indian and Iranian perspectives on the Bahmashir Incident – perspectives that have, to my knowledge, never been recorded. To contextualize, the study instead draws on a wide range of secondary sources and comparative research that will appear from the footnotes. These materials in turn are also the basis for a broader research project on the history of Abadan. I would like to thank Drs. Stephanie Cronin, Kaveh Ehsani, Ulrike Freitag, Touraj Atabaki, Don Watts and Kevan Harris, and in particular Dr. Nelida Fuccaro, for their insightful feedback and critique.
  4. This term was popularized by Abu-Lughod’s pioneering sociological study, which analysed the city of Rabat as an entity containing two urban spaces divided by colonial rulers along ethnic lines of apartheid. See: J. L. AbuLughod. 1981. Urban Apartheid in Morocco, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


  1. J. Ferguson. 2005. ‘Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa’, American Anthropologist 107(3), 377-382.


  1. Loosely inspired by the works of Carl Schmitt (via S. Legg. 2011. Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos, London and New York: Routledge) and G. Agamben (2005. State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press), here the term is used specifically to indicate a territorial space in which a (foreign, non-state) entity that derives its legitimacy from an agreement with the nominal local authority (nationstate) brings into question the sovereignty of that space. On the controversial history of Company-Iranian relations, refer to M. Elm. 1992. Oil, Power and Principle: Iran’s Oil Nationalisation and its Aftermath, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press; and L.P. Elwell-Sutton. 1955. Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics, London: Lawrence & Wishart.


  1. M. Crinson. 1997. ‘Abadan: Planning and Architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’, Planning Perspectives 12(3), 341-359; K. Ehsani. 2003. ‘Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman’, International Review of Social History 48(3), 361-399.


  1. See for example S. Malesevic. 2010. The Sociology of War and Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; C. Tilly. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. On the direct relation between violence and oil industries, see: R. Dufresne. 2004. ‘The Opacity of Oil: Oil Corporations, Internal Violence, and International Law’, Journal of International Law and Politics 36(2-3), 331- 394; T. Dunning and L. Wirpsa. 2004. ‘Oil and the Political Economy of Conflict in Columbia and Beyond: A Linkage Approach’ Geopolitics 9(1), 81-108; M. Watts. 2001. ‘Petro-Violence: Community, Extraction, and Political Ecology of a Mythic Commodity’, in N. Peluso and M. Watts (eds), Violent Environments, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 189-212; and M. Watts. 2004. ‘Resource Curse? Governmentality, Oil and Power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’, Geopolitics 9(1), 50-80.


  1. BNA: PRO LAB13/515, 1942.


  1. R. W. Ferrier. 1982. The History of the British Petroleum Company, Vol. 1: The developing years, 1901-1932, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 153-4.


  1. Ibid., 6


  1. See for example Elwell-Sutton’s accounts (Persian Oil, 102-3); on the connections between oil industry culture and racism, see also R. Vitalis. 2004. ‘Aramco World: Business and Culture on the Arabian Oil Frontier’ in A. Madawi and R. Vitalis (eds), Counter-Narratives: History, Contemporary Society, and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 151-181.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Until the 1930s, modern notions of an Iranian national identity were still relatively weak among the illiterate rural masses of the geographical periphery. In Khuzestan, there were important divisions between rural and urban groups, between indigenous Khuzestanis (Arabs, Lors, Bakhtiaris, Behbahanis etc.) and newcomers (Persians, Azeris), between Shia and Sunni (migrants from the Persian Gulf) etc. Sometimes the Company exploited these divisions. See for example Abrahamian, ‘The Strengths and Weaknesses’, and R. C. Elling. 2015. ‘A War of Clubs: Inter-Ethnic Violence During the 1946 Oil Strike in Abadan’, in N. Fuccaro (ed.). forthcoming. On ethnicity and minorities in Iran, see R. C. Elling. 2013. Minorities in Iran: Nationalism and Ethnicity after Khomeini, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


  1. BNA, FO 371/7818; Ferrier, The History of British Petroleum, 401, Table 10.1.


  1. R. Visser. 2007. ‘The Gibraltar That Never Was’, paper presented to the British World Conference, Bristol, July 11-14,, 6.


  1. Dobe, A Long Slow Tutelage, 5.


  1. Crinson, ‘Abadan: Planning and Architecture’, 347. Today, the Indian influence is still very prevalent in Abadan: Indian loanwords are part of the local dialect, and Indian food is popular at home and in restaurants.


  1. H. Yule. 1903. Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, New edition, ed. William Brooke, London: J. Murray, entry: ‘Cooly’. Also note that in Abadan, ‘coolie’ was sometimes used to signify all non-white labour. See for example the descriptions provided by Jewish employees of a Zionist company in Abadan in Y. Shenhav. 2002. ‘The Phenomenology of Colonialism and the Politics of “Difference”: European Zionist Emissaries and Arab-Jews in Colonial Abadan’, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 8(4), 527 and 529.


  1. See for example: U. Mahajani. 1977. ‘Slavery, Indian Labour and British Colonialism’, Pacific Affairs 50(2), 263-271.


  1. M. Carter and K. Torabully. 2002. Coolitude, London: Anthem Press.


  1. Government of India to APOC, 25 November 1920, in BNA: FO371/6426.


  1. Floor, Labour Unions, 28.


  1. See for example Dobe, A Long Slow Tutelage, 30.


  1. Cronin, ‘Popular Politics, the New State’.


  1. BNA: FO371/7818.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Ibid., see also Floor, Labour Unions, 28-31.


  1. Elwell-Sutton, Persian Oil, 68.


  1. BNA: FO371/7818.


  1. Floor, Labour Unions, 32.


  1. Dobe, A Long Slow Tutelage, 31.


  1. Ibid., 65, 68.


  1. Cronin, ‘Popular Politics, the New State’, 715.


  1. Minister, Tehran to Foreign Secretary, Government of India, 2 July 1924, in BNA: FO371/10126.


  1. Manager, Strick, Scott & Co. to H.B.M.’sConsul for Arabistan, Mohammerah, 24 September 1914, in BPA: ArcRef 71754.


  1. Kennion, Mohammerah to Neilson, Tehran, 21 May 1915, in BPA: ArcRef 71754.


  1. Note by Sir Hugh Barnes on Proposed Abadan Police Force,30 July 1915 in BPA: ArcRef 71754.


  1. BPA: ArcRef 71754.


  1. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company, 275, 402.


  1. Quoted by Cronin, ‘Popular Politics, the New State’, 720.


  1. Translation of an article from Habl-ol-matin, published in Calcutta on 2 August 1927, from BPA: ArcRef 129909.
  2. Mahmoud Khuzestani quoted in Bayat, ‘With or Without Workers’, 117.
  3. Eftekhari in M. T. Tafreshi and K. Bayat. 1991. Khaterat-e dowran-e separi-shode, Tehran: Ferdows, 118.
  4. The notion of the conniving Indian agent of British colonialism is known from literary masterpieces such as Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun and Iraj Pezeshkzad’s Da‘i Jân Nâpel‘un and has existed in popular political mythology for decades.
  5. Cronin, ‘Popular Politics, the New State’, 715.
  6. J. H. Bamberg. 1994. The History of the British Petroleum Company, Vol. 2: The Anglo-Iranian years, 19281954, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 34.
  7. Ibid., 247.
  8. See for example Tafreshi and Bayat, Khaterat-e dowran-e.
  9. Crinson, ‘Abadan: Planning and Architecture’, 342.
  10. Visser, ‘The Gibraltar That Never Was’, 6-7.
  11. BPA quoted by Crinson, ‘Abadan: Planning and Architecture’, 350.
  12. Ehsani, ‘Social Engineering’, 376.
  13. On ‘public space’ in Abadan, see ibid., 393, note 55.
  14. Even when the Company built the ethnically mixed neighbourhood of Bawarda in the 1940s – a project then presented as a progressive measure – this neighbourhood was ultimately inhabited mostly by British and a few British-educated Iranians and Indians.
  15. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company, 6.
  16. Ehsani, ‘Social Engineering’, 393.
  17. Ibid., 392.
  18. R, Lawless and I. Seccombe. 1993. ‘Impact of the Oil Industry on Urbanisation in the Persian Gulf Region’, in H. Amirahmadi and S.S. El-Shakhs (eds), Urban Development in the Muslim World, New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, 199.
  19. G. C-L. Low. 1996. White Skins / Black Masks. Representation and Colonialism, London, New York: Routledge, 163.
  20. BPA: ArcRef 68881, 5 January 1943.
  21. ‘Report on the Bahmashir Incident’, BPA: ArcRef 68881, 5 January 1943.
  22. BPA: ArcRef 68881, 22 December 1942.


  1. BNA: FO 248/1435, 21 December 1942. The Polish regiment had been relocated to Abadan due to World War II displacements and put in the service of the Company by the British occupying forces.


  1. Pattinson to Rice, BPA: ArcRef 68881, 22 December 1942.


  1. ‘Disturbances in the Artizans Lines’, BPA: ArcRef 68881, 20 December 1942.


  1. BPA: ArcRef 43758, 4 December 1942.


  1. See Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company, 240.


  1. For a description of life in wartime Abadan, see H. Longhurst. 1959. Adventure in Oil: the Story of British Petroleum, London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd.: Chapter 10; see also R. C. Elling. 2013. ‘The World’s Biggest Refinery and the Second World War: Khuzestan, Oil and Security’, Comparative Social Histories of Labour in the Oil Industry conference, June 2013, Amsterdam.


  1. See for example: BPA: ArcRef 68881, 19 July 1943.


  1. BPA ArcRef 68881, 9 December 1942.


  1. Pattinson to Rice, BP Archives 68881, 9 December 1942.


  1. BPA: ArcRef 25553, quoted in Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company, 248-9.


  1. F. Fanon. 1963. Wretched of the Earth, tr. Constance Farrington (original ed. 1961), New York: Grove Press, 39.


  1. Ehsani, ‘Social Engineering’, 365, note 10; 382.


  1. Visser, ‘The Gibraltar That Never Was’, 2006.


  1. Ibid., 11.


  1. See Elling, ‘A War of Clubs’.


  1. ‘Disturbances in the Artizans Lines’, BPA: ArcRef 68881, 20 December 1942.


  1. Pattinson to Rice, BP Archives 68881, 22 December 1942.


  1. Ibid.


  1. GHQ PAIFORCE to HQ 12 IND DIV., BPA: ArcRef 68881, 12 January 1943.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Pattinson to Sunbury, BPA: ArcRef 68881, 24 December 1942.


  1. For an example of the use of ‘frontier’ about the Persian Gulf oil industry, see the ground-breaking work of Vitalis, ‘Aramco World’; about Khuzestan as a frontier, see Dobe, A Long Slow Tutelage.


  1. Watts, ‘Petro-Violence’, 212.




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