Abadan in the National Press During the Oil Nationalisation Movement, 1946-51 | Mattin Biglari — ABADAN RETOLD

by Mattin Biglari

Originally Published in ABADAN RETOLD

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Abadan is and always has been the centre of Iran’s oil industry. Curiously, however, relatively few have examined how, beyond economic effects, this centre of oil has been connected to the centre of politics, Tehran. Yet during that most momentous period of Iranian oil politics – that of the oil nationalisation movement – Abadan was central in the national imagination.

Abadan Refinery on the eve of Iranian oil nationalization.
Source: BP Archives.
Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, who nationalized Iran’s oil industry
– here presumably on a visit to the US and the UN Headquarter in 1951.
Source: Unknown.

The press is a crucial component in the development of nationalism through facilitating the simultaneity of thought and imagination within a bounded domain and through a common language (Anderson 1983). During the oil nationalisation movement, the press became fascinated with Abadan to such an extent that they presented it as a microcosm of Iran’s overall standing in the world. Knowing and talking about Abadan offered the cultural capital with which to suggest the way forward to modernise the country, underpinning the drive to nationalise Iran’s oil and its realisation in 1951.

In this article, I show how and why the press paid so much attention to Abadan, whilst also offering a suggestion as to why this has been forgotten. I make use of the BP Archive’s Tehran press summaries, which offer comprehensive daily extracts from Iranian newspapers from across the political spectrum. These were collected and translated by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s (AIOC) information department, who trawled through the press every day to find articles on matters that were in some way related to the company. These summaries present a high degree of debate between, and even within, different newspapers about Abadan.

Nevertheless, almost all devoted lengthy column inches to the town on a daily basis. Furthermore, the range of topics covered demonstrates a high degree of fascination with this seemingly distant place: of course, the labour conditions and role of AIOC was of great interest, but so too were the more mundane aspects of daily life in Abadan, such as the results of local sports teams, or even the creation of a gardening society. Thus, in addition to revealing a great deal about opinion in Tehran, these press reports can bring to light very interesting information about life in Abadan itself.

Before going into the details of these reports, it is worth providing some context about the condition and function of the press at the time. Iran has had a rich tradition of press since the Constitutional Revolution, which saw a huge flourishing of publications produced by an emerging class of intellectuals. In fact, according to Afary, between 1906 and 1911, over 200 periodicals came into existence (Afary 1996, 116). By the 1920s, publications had become a major site for developing class sensibility among the nascent bourgeoisie, where topics and matters like hygiene, crime, science and education could be discussed, and where the latest commodities could be advertised to a group of self-identifying consumers (Schayegh 2009; Devos and Werner 2014). This was exemplified by the creation of Ettela’at by Abbas Mas’udi in 1926, which quickly became the paper of the establishment par excellence.

By the mid-1940s, however, the press had undergone somewhat of a social revolution. The wartime allied occupation and the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941 had created a vacuum of power where relatively more freedoms could be enjoyed, especially in publishing. This was the decade when political organs became a major player on the scene, like the Tudeh Party’s Mardom or the National Front’s Bakhtar-e Emruz. Moreover, new people were reading, or at least, listening to those who could read… Already in 1943, one Western observer expressed his surprise that “[t]here are 47 newspapers in Tehran, a city of only 750,000 inhabitants, the large majority of whom are illiterate”; by 1951, however, this number mushroomed into 700 (Ansari 2003, 79). As will become clear, although these were being published in Tehran, they were being read across the country, including Abadan.

Headlines in an issue of Bakhtar-e Emruz published during the oil nationalisation.
Source: Unknown.

In fact, Ettela’at had a circulation of 40,000-50,000 at the time, while Kayhan’s stood at 20,000 and other dailies could range from anywhere between 500 and 5,000 (Elwell-Sutton 1968, 72). Their popularity and circulation mean we can take these publications together as a diagnosis for wider feelings in society at the time, especially the middle class, and as having significant force in political culture. Indeed, politicians would often write in these papers or reference them in their speeches to the majles (Parliament); some were even editors of papers themselves. Examining how the press conceptualised Abadan at this time reveals the tendencies within public opinion that fed into the oil nationalisation movement in this period of rising popular nationalism (Ansari 2012), whilst also showing those currents of thought that were to be attacked, marginalised and forgotten.

The starting point for this story is 1946 when, in the aftermath of World War Two, the experience of the Allied Occupation had left a strong impression of national identity on many young, increasingly literate Iranians. Moreover, the vacuum of power it created fostered a more critical view to the established order whilst enabling more freedom for people to express such opinions. As the most visible presence of British imperialism in Iran, the AIOC became the main target of attack for the nationalist-minded journalists writing in new publications. As early as 21 January 1946, in reference to the state of AIOC’s Iranian employees, an article in the trade union paper Bahram lamented that “a large number of workmen sleep in streets and have no shelter at all, whereas the dogs of the Company’s British Staff receive food rations and their hens have comfortable coops”.[1] Similarly even the more conservative Tehran Mosavarreported that “the position of an Iranian coolie at Abadan (whose number exceeds 30,000) is so deplorable that a spectator would be inclined to give him his own clothing in order to enable him to cover his nakedness”.[2]

Labour activists marching in Bandar-e Ma’shur (Mahshahr) close to Abadan, 1946. Source: Unknown.
Demonstration, presumably in Abadan in 1952. Source: Alamy.com.
Mosaddeq’s ally, politician Hossein Makki, speaking before a crowd in Abadan in 1951. Source: The Illustrated London News.

As labour activism amongst the AIOC workforce increased throughout the year, left-wing publications agitated with a central focus on events in Khuzestan. After a strike broke out at the Agha Jari oil well on 5 May, Tudeh and trade union organs framed it in terms of the struggle for national liberation against imperialism. Zafar, the paper of the Tudeh-affiliated Central Council of Federated Trade Unions (CCFTU), exclaimed that “the agents of Downing Street have penetrated into Iran especially in oil-producing areas, and in order to exploit Iranians, have resorted to all sorts of hideous crimes” and that “a short visit to Khuzestan reveals that there is nothing but poverty, destruction and ignorance”.[3] Even the more independent Iran-e Maconceptualised the AIOC workers at Agha Jari as symbolising the nation:

The Oil Kings who have sucked the blood of 15 million people were not even prepared to provide the minimum necessities of life for thousands of Iranian workmen who produce rivers of liquid gold for their masters…. The British believed that the people of Iran will for ever remain in their backward state, and never thought that 10,000 workmen in a remote desert might rise up in strike against them.[4]

The strike at Agha Jari brought greater attention to Abadan itself and more publications sought to highlight the living conditions of AIOC workers in the town. A Piroozi article on 19 June reported that “[t]he majority of the population of Abadan are AIOC workmen whose conditions are extremely deplorable. Although they produce each hour tons of liquid gold for the British, they are deprived of the most elementary rights of mankind”.[5] The Tudeh Party organ, Rahbar, even sent a correspondent, whose eye-witness account alleged that near the swimming pools in Abadan placards were posted reading: “Dogs and third class employees are not admitted”, third class employees being almost exclusively Iranian.[6]

When the general strike began in Khuzestan on 14 July 1946, the leftist publications provided daily reports about the situation and speculated on a British plot to mobilise the Arab tribes against the workers (for a comprehensive account of the strike see Elling 2016). The next day, Rahbar reported that the British were “intriguing amongst the tribesmen with a view to creating disturbances and disorder” and that “3,000 Arabs armed by the British agents are awaiting orders for an attack on Ahwaz”.[7] In fact, a close reading of the press summaries shows that these papers had been putting forward such rumours well before the strike began, suggesting that AIOC political representative Lawrence Jeacock and political advisor for Khuzestan Colonel Underwood had been seeking to use the Arab tribes to crush the labour movement. No doubt, previous fears of an Arab separatist movement emerging in Khuzestan, which had been centred on Sheikh Khaz’al before, underpinned such a conceptualization of the Arab tribes (Kashani-Sabet 1999, 165). Indeed, on 5 July Zafar even claimed an “Arab outlaw” had recently emerged who claimed to be the successor to Khaz’al.[8] Noticeably absent in such reporting at the time, however, were the views of more established, organizationally independent papers.

However, this was to change after April 1947, when AIOC invited 15 journalists of different newspapers to come from Tehran to Abadan and inspect the oil installations as well as the living and labour conditions of workers. Very soon, the journalists who had made the trip focused their attention on the latter. Mohammad Mas’ud, editor of the nationalist paper Mard-e Emruz, claimed that upon visiting a labour pen in Abadan, a “rush” of workers went to him and said that the company “deprived them of their wealth and are making great feasts abroad while they are starving. “They dance while we are burning!”.[9] The independent Akhtar reported that workers were living life like that of “Stone Age man”, with 99% living in holes in a life of “gradual death”.[10] Similarly, Dad claimed that the conditions of workers” houses in Bahar, Farahabad, Ahmadabad and Bahmanshir were “not satisfactory” and that “the local hole-like houses are not suitable for habitation”.[11] Mohammad Mortazavi, the editor of Piroozi, said that he had visited the shantytown suburb of Kaghazabad and had:

a few minutes’ talk with its miserable inhabitants about their everyday griefs. Kaghezabad consists of a few small huts made of mat, wood, paper and cardboard. The floor is covered with a piece of mat. These huts serve as lodging to families consisting of not less than 5-6 members who drag out their miserable lives. They lack everything and various diseases prevailing ruthlessly among them.[12]

What confounded journalists was the existence of such conditions in a city that they deemed to be so modern and home to great wealth. Mortazavi said that anyone who had seen what he had would be shocked to see “two extremely contrasting aspects of life lying side by side! Pomp and beauty in the widest sense of the words prevailing on one side and misery and destitution ruling on the other side, at close range”.[13] Likewise, Kasrareported that “[t]he AIOC section of Abadan, with its beautiful and neat buildings and decent living conditions for the inhabitants, cannot be compared with the other section of the town, which is quite unsuitable for human habitation”.[14]

Occasionally, we hear the voice of Abadanis in making such contrasts. A reporter for the Tudeh’s Mardom recalled how he had been in a coffee shop when a boy came in to sell photos, shouting “modern life in Britain for five rials”, to which the coffee shop owner responded that he did “not need” to see such pictures because he could see them in parts of Abadan, which he contrasted to areas like Ahmadabad, where he claimed there was no drinking water. Then the coffee shop owner cried: “[h]ave a look at the languid, pale workers who are passing by, then go to Braim and Bawarda to see the houses and lives of the British for yourself”.[15]

Demonstrations at Abadan Refinery, 1951. Source: BP Archives / J.H. Bamberg.
Newsstand on fire in the streets of Tehran, 1953. Source: The Guardian.

Writers expressed ambivalence because they were in such awe of the technological edifices of the city. For the famous leftist intellectual, political figure and future founder of Iran’s “Third Force” party in the 1950s, Khalil Maleki, Abadan encapsulated both what was right and wrong about Iran (for more on Khalil Maleki see Katouzian 1999: 95-112; Milani 2008: 220-228). For example in 1947, when still a member of the Tudeh Party he bemoaned that “the AIOC”S machinery for oil is known as one of the most modern in the world; but the conditions under which its workers live are hopeless in comparison with labour conditions in civilised countries”.[16]Similarly, the editor of Emruz-o-Farda, Shahidzadeh, was quoted in Dad as saying that “the Oil Company, having organised such a highly developed industrial establishment, should in like manner improve the conditions of its workmen and raise their standard of living”.[17] Almost all, including critics of the AIOC, expressed pride that the Abadan Refinery was the biggest in the world. Indeed, the left-wing Mahmud Tafazzoli, when remembering the 1946 general strike, praised the fact that the workers did not cause any harm to the oil installations”.[18]

For the middle class intelligentsia, the technology and science on offer in Abadan was evidently of more interest than the living conditions of the workers. There are numerous reports of students from Tehran visiting the oil installations in Abadan and publishing their accounts in papers of the technocratic modernisers. Indeed, papers such as Ettela’attook great interest in the number of students from Tehran going to study at the Abadan Technical Institute, even publishing articles on exam results for admittance. Even when a trip had been arranged for students to visit Abadan to inspect the oil installations, Ettela’at felt the need to report it. For its editor, Abbas Mas’udi, the technical education for Iranians was of vital importance if Iran were to exploit its own oil, as he began to campaign for at this time. Students at the Abadan Technical Institute were a source of hope, evidently enough so that Ettela’at felt confident to assert in an editorial that “[t]he exploitation of Iran’s oil resources, by Iranians themselves, is quite possible and practicable, since the means of such exploitation, that is capital, workers, and technical experts, are all available in Iran”.[19]

To people of this milieu, all other aspects of “modern life” on offer in Abadan were of enough interest to report on frequently. Many articles spoke and published photos of the sporting facilities in Abadan like swimming pools and tennis courts. There were also numerous reports of the local amateur sports teams in Abadan and the results of their matches. Significantly, these were all Western sports like football, tennis or even ping-pong. This was not merely because of a cosmetic fascination with Western products; as both Schayegh and Chehabi show, the new middle class had disavowed traditional Iranian sports like those of the zurkhaneh, mainly because Western sports were viewed as instilling a more rigorous, competitive discipline needed for a healthy and efficient population, and thus, for modernisation (Schayegh 2009; Chehabi 2014).

Of a similar level of interest were the cinemas of Abadan; although special attention was given to the famous Taj Cinema, the press would often report whenever a smaller cinema had newly been opened. As historian Bianca Devos shows, the cinema was deemed a useful tool by modernists in being a progressive form of entertainment that could educate people (Devos 2014, 276). Even gardening was examined, with Dad noting that a Gardening Society had been set up with 160 members in Abadan and Mihan reporting that a certain AIOC worker called Yadullah Nasiri had won the prize for best-kept garden.[20]

Indeed, for many across the political spectrum, Abadan figured in the imagination as a source for emulation that Iran needed to follow in order to truly modernise. The zealously anti-establishment nationalist and firebrand journalist, Abbas Khalili, was especially impressed:

I must say that Abadan looks like a European city. It is an example of modern civilization. This industrial city has all kinds of amenities of which electricity, filtered water, coolers and refrigerators are the most common. In this salty land all kinds of flowers, fruits and vegetables are grown…. Apart from exploiting the richest resources of Iran, the AIOC has created the best example of prosperity, civilization, and comfort on this island. We should follow this example if we really wish to ensure our happiness.[21]

Likewise, the more conservative, pro-government paper Saba was full of praise:

If you have been in Europe and go to Abadan and gaze at the nice buildings, the tall chimneys and refineries in that city, you will consider that this city has been transported from one of the countries of Western Europe and placed in this part of the world…. Braim has magnificent buildings and all its streets are asphalted. The beautiful villas of this quarter resemble those in Switzerland.[22]

The apparently “European” nature of Abadan was sometimes contrasted to Tehran, which was seen in some regards to be lagging behind in terms of technological development. One writer of Khorush-e Iran, for instance, said that upon seeing the filtration plants at Abadan and Masjed-e Soleyman, one could never dream to have such a water system in Tehran.[23]

Yet for like-minded individuals, Abadan could also be a source of profound frustration, seeming to encapsulate what was holding Iran back. In these travel accounts, some writers reveal that this was their first time leaving Tehran, seeing the country from the plane window that they had previously only imagined; they were now “discovering” the nation and its standing in the world. When arriving at Abadan and being confronted with such stark differences in wealth within the city, it was not necessarily AIOC that they blamed but rather the backwardness of the government and the Iranian people.

In the very same article that Khalili expressed his awe of Abadan, for example, he blamed the poverty of its inhabitants on local Iranian government officials and the Iranian people themselves, who seemed “to be united in welcoming poverty, disease and starvation with open arms…. The Iranian people live in ignorance and darkness, deprived of everything”. In contrast to Europeans, Iranians did not “know the value of life” and so “we trample every pleasure by greed, waste and prejudice”.[24] There was often irritation that despite having such modern amenities and products, Abadanis did not know how to use them; one of the most common complaints in this regard was that “the standard of driving in Abadan is lamentable and car accidents are on the increase”.[25]

Indeed, many newspapers often reported on perceived vices taking place in Abadan, which was used as evidence for Iranian backwardness. There are countless instances of this in papers from across the political spectrum in this period, with the local Iranian authorities being blamed. Ettela’at was especially prolific in this regard, often reporting on opium addiction and gambling in Abadan and attributing their prevalence to the failings of the Military Governorship to eradicate them. Abadan was increasingly conceptualised as a frontier town of criminality. Numerous papers complained of smuggling, with some suggesting the government was complicit in it, while others simply criticised the government’s inability to address it.

More and more column inches were also being devoted to instances of brawls and petty theft in the town, such that when more notable robberies occurred or a murder happened, the press were only too quick to claim that theft and murder “prevail” in the town.[26] As Schayegh has shown, for some time the middle class had been concerned by the existence of perceived vices, especially drug addiction, because these were seen as indicative of how unprepared the Iranian people were for modernisation and city life; moreover, the effects of such vices were disastrous, for they could result in such mental and physical corruption that the future of the Iranian nature might be put in jeopardy (Schayegh 2009).

In addition, many journalists feminised the criminal corruption that they believed was holding back the nation. In 1947 reports of prostitution in Abadan became increasingly common in the Tehran press, such that papers would hysterically claim “debauchery has increased in Abadan”.[27] Left-wing papers also participated in this reporting; Ibrahim Golestan of Mardom wrote that upon asking an older man where all the women in Abadan were, the old man replied that “everybody knows that the town is full of……” to which Golestan responded: “Yes, Abadan is full of the smell of oil and prostitution. When there was a party and a union there, they had changed more than 40 immoral houses into clubs and centres of life and progress. The Military Governorship later reversed all this”.[28]

Mardom even claimed that the local Iranian military governorship of Khuzestan was conspiring with “a notorious prostitute in Abadan” called Zobaideh, whom people seeking the favour of the Military Governor had to go through.[29] As Camron Michael Amin shows, in the 1940s the Iranian press increasingly portrayed women as the “agents of cultural corruption” in national vulnerability (Amin 2001). Thus, in many writers” opinion, prostitution in Abadan was a problem because it was corrupting the government and the Iranian people themselves. As Azadi-ye Sharq complained, “the prettiest prostitutes are intentionally despatched to Khuzestan by some invisible hands in order that the AIOC workers and the other youths go to them and spend all their money on them”.[30]

Scene from the documentary Nedâmatgâh (“The Prison”), 1963. In this and another documentary from the same year (Qal‘eh, “The Fortress”), we hear the voices of several prostitutes who have worked in Abadan. Source: Screenshot from the film Nedâmatgâh (“The Prison”) by Kamran Shirdel, 1963.

To some writers, such misgovernment was a direct result of Abadan”s riches, which had seemingly blinded authorities from the realities of imperialism. As one writer in Dadargued, areas like Braim were a “foretaste of paradise” where, “exactly like the famous artificial paradise of Hasan Sabbah, the leader of the Isma’iliyeh religion, the responsible authorities of this country, enchanted by the magic of the oil masters, are servile and submissive”.[31] Thus, for some, even the supposedly positive, “modern” aspects of Abadan could be something to be suspicious about. Early on, then, we can detect the tensions in nationalist thought that would be fully articulated in Al-i Ahmad”s Westoxification (Mirsepassi 2000).

The dismissive disdain shown towards Abadan was important in the way the national press approached the issue of oil nationalisation leading up to its realisation in 1951. For much of 1949 and 1950, most papers debated between themselves as they focused on the arguments being raised by politicians regarding nationalisation; noticeably absent at the time was the voice of ordinary Abadanis. Whenever Abadan was mentioned, it was only ever to conceptualise Iran’s exploitation at the hands of imperialism through oil extraction. The National Front had now emerged and, through its organs Shahed and Bakhtar-e Emruz, started to express the view that oil had cursed Iran. For example, it asserted: “[t]here is no shade of doubt in the fact that if Khuzestan was not an oil-producing area, it would have been by now the most prosperous part of Iran. If no oil was exploited at Abadan and Masjed-e Soleyman, we would not have become retrograde and suffered so much”.[32]

The voice of Abadani workers was not to come to the fore until a strike starting on 24 March 1951 at several AIOC-controlled locations throughout Khuzestan. It was now that a dialogue began between Abadan and Tehran, as Abadani workers appealed to and sought to use the Tehran papers to put forward their demands; although this had been happening since 1946, it was now a daily occurrence and formal tactic employed by the strikers. Thus, it is here that a new a form of protest was added to a pre-existing toolkit identified by Stephanie Cronin, which was comprised of petitioning authorities, distributing shabnameh leaflets, taking sanctuary (bast), engaging in violence, and, of course, ceasing work (Cronin 2010). It was revealed by Ettela’at that AIOC workers had sent telegrams to the Tehran papers (as well as to the Parliament) about their demands.[33]These were even published by such papers, with Kayhan listing one set of demands that included an eighty per cent increase in wages, adequate supply of water and electricity, transport facilities for workers and their families, reversal of recent reductions to allowances, and an extra month’s wages as a Nowruz bonus. Somewhat surprisingly, given that Parliament had already decided in principle to nationalise AIOC, nowhere was the demand for the implementation of nationalisation to be seen.[34]

Despite the efforts of workers in Abadan to use the press for their own ends, in reality the press used the workers to put forward their agenda for nationalisation. More often than not, journalists took it upon themselves to speak on behalf of the workers, conceptualising the AIOC workers on strike as the Iranian nation fighting against British imperialism. For example, the National Front’s Bakhtar-e Emruz characterized the strike as a “national move” reflecting “the sacred millions of Iranians (who have grown tired of the burden of colonisers)”.[35]

One of the means by which nationalists produced such a narrative was by presenting all AIOC’s workforce as homogenously Iranian, overlooking Abadan’s ethnic diversity and the large numbers of Indian and Arab workers that AIOC employed (Elling 2015; Atabaki 2015). Thus, one writer in Asr could confidently assert that AIOC “thinks that the Iranian workers are its slaves and it can take any decision on them… The honourable Iranian workers have realised the intrigues of egoist foreigners”.[36] Another way for presenting such a narrative was by portraying Abadan as a British enclave on Iranian soil; as Kayhan claimed: “Everyone visiting Abadan considers that he is in a British colony”.[37]

But very quickly, most papers portrayed the strike as the product of foreign intrigue, tacitly denying the agency of Abadan’s workers in fighting for a better existence. Nearly all the main newspapers, including Ettela’atKayhanShahed and Bakhtar-e Emruz claimed that in order to sabotage nationalisation, AIOC deliberately initiated the strike and Tudeh agitators had played a role in intensifying it. Kayhan, for instance, sent correspondents to Abadan who claimed the strike was definitely started by AIOC so that the British government might send forces to protect British assets.[38] Similarly, Bakhtar-e Emruz asserted that the strike was “caused by the satanic Abadan oil authorities” who “deemed it necessary to excite the workers” feelings” so that martial law could be declared in the province and “terrify people, compelling them not to make any move against the will of the Company”.[39]Similarly, one writer in Asr argued:

Anyone who has provoked the workers has been an enemy of the country’s freedom and independence. The nation, after years of bitter struggle, desires to nationalise oil but mysterious hands want to create trouble and to show to the world that we are unable to protect our resources…. The country is in a grave state and the workers should not be toys in the hands of foreigners.[40]

Thus, in these accounts, workers were only on strike because they had been duped by “foreign” elements, whether British or communist, so that, although these workers should be defended because they represented Iran, their actions were to be discouraged because they went against the national interest.

This ambivalence towards the strike reflected a great anxiety about the transition to nationalisation, which was at the top of the agenda for most papers. Indeed, the daily reporting on the strike by establishment papers like Ettela’at was unprecedented (it certainly did not happen during the 1946 strike) and displayed frustration over the fact that the most important locale of nationalisation was very far from the nation’s centre. It is for this reason that as the strike continued, Ettela’at felt it necessary to state clearly:

We should point out that these events are contrary to the desire of the Iranian people, and we hereby express regret at developments…. Discerning people and those interested in the destiny of the country ought to do their best to help to maintain peace and order. At this critical moment our country needs, more than anything else, tranquillity, order, co-operation and understanding…. We hope that… the disturbance will not spread and intensify, and that similar incidents will not occur in the future.[41]

While the press noted there was great anxiety among the public and circulated rumours that foreign agents were planning on setting fire to oil wells, they appealed to Abadan’s workers. Papers urged the workers to represent the nation and secure the infrastructure necessary for Iran’s future national oil industry. Thus, Bakhtar-e Emruz cried:

Dear workers! The nation’s hope now lies with you. The oil wells belong to Iran. They must remain sound until they are handed over to their rightful proprietor. The AIOC is very willing that sabotage may take place in the oilfields; perhaps it may succeed in thwarting oil nationalisation. We are certain that Iranian workers will keep cool.[42]

Given this narrative, then, it is not surprising that once nationalisation was realised by July 1951, the press unambiguously conveyed Abadan as very much part of the Iranian nation. Almost six years since workers in Abadan had inspired the press in Tehran to imagine the nation’s experience of imperialism, now it could be triumphantly claimed that, above the AIOC’s former premises in Abadan, “the Iranian flag is flying”.[43] No longer a British colony, Abadan represented Iran’s future. Although Iranian authorities had been present in the town ever since Reza Shah had come to power, this did not stop centralising nationalists in Tehran from considering it a foreign enclave. Now, much to their joy, it had finally come under the control of Tehran. No better expression of such vitriol can be found than in the National Front’s Shahed: “This paper takes pride in the fact that the Iranian Government is controlling Abadan, which has been under British tyranny for the past 50 years”.[44]

Thus, Abadan figured centrally in the national imagination during the oil nationalisation movement, seeming to encapsulate Iran’s standing in the world to many Tehrani onlookers. With its modern way of life and impressive technology, it could represent Iran’s future. Paradoxically, with its poverty, prostitution and crime it could also exemplify the backwardness of the Iranian people, both in government and in the general population. With the presence of AIOC, it was the ultimate marker of Iran’s subordinate position in the world order and its exploitation at the hands of imperialism.

Prime Minster Mosaddeq writing. Source: Unknown.
Anti-Mosaddeq forces during the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953. Source: Wikimedia.
A 100 Rials note from 1954 depicting Abadan Refinery. Source: Unknown.

Yet the place of Abadan in Iranian nationalism has largely been forgotten. The roots for understanding why can be discerned in the way Abadan was imagined by the national press. For although Abadan’s inhabitants, through their own actions, inspired Tehrani writers to talk about the town, these writers projected their own narrative on to Abadan from the beginning. This was partly because Abadan did not fit neatly into the nationalist narrative: like other cosmopolitan port towns, it did not cohere with the ethno-linguistic nationalism of the nation state (Harper and Amrith 2014), and its location in Mesopotamia beyond the Zagros had always been a source of territorial anxiety (Kashani-Sabet 1999).

But aside from these more particular factors, Abadan, like other provincial towns in Iran, was only imagined insofar as it related to the national centre, which was not merely geographical, but social as well. For Tehran’s technocratic, modernising elite, this meant taking control of Abadan in the same way that they sought to socially engineer Tehran’s urban poor (Schayegh 2009); both required the dismissing of subaltern agency in favour of central authority and knowledge, a process which James C. Scott terms “high modernism” (Scott 1988). Abadan’s workers may have started the anti-imperialist struggle, but the duty of building the nation was to fall upon a self-appointed milieu of state-builders.


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Devos, Bianca, and Christoph Werner, eds. 2014. Culture and Cultural Politics under Reza Shah: The Pahlavi State, New Bourgeoisie and the Creation of a Modern Society in Iran. London ; New York: Routledge.

Elling, Rasmus. 2015. “On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City”. In Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation State, edited by U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi, and N. Lafi, 197–221. New York: Berghahn Books.

———. 2016. “A War of Clubs: Inter-Ethnic Violence and the 1946 Oil Strike in Abadan”. In Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East, edited by Nelida Fuccaro, 189–210. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Elwell-Sutton, L. P. 1968. “The Iranian Press, 1941-1947”. Iran 6: 65–104.

Harper, T. N., and Sunil S. Amrith, eds. 2014. Sites of Asian Interaction: Ideas, Networks and Mobility. Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Kashani-Sabet, Firoozeh. 1999. Frontier Fictions : Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press,.

Katouzian, Homa. 1999. Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran. 2nd ed. London ; New York : New York ; I.B. Tauris ;

Milani, Abbas. 2008. Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979: In Two Volumes. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Mirsepassi, Ali. 2000. Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schayegh, Cyrus. 2009. Who Is Knowledgeable, Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900-1950. Berkeley: Univerity of California Press.

Sharifi, Majid. 2013. Imagining Iran: The Tragedy of Subaltern Nationalism. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Further reading:
Abrahamian, Ervand. 1982. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.

———. 1981. “The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Labor Movement in Iran, 1941-1953” in Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change, ed. M. E. Bonine and N. R. Keddie, 211-32. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Afary, Janet. 2009. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Al-i Aḥmad, Jalal. 1982. Gharbzadegi (Weststruckness). Lexington : Mazdâ Publishers.

Bamberg, J. H. 1994. The History of The British Petroleum Company: Vol.2, The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928-1954. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2000. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-1975 : The Challenge of Nationalism. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Bill, James, and William Roger Louis, eds. 1988. Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism and Oil. London : I.B. Tauris.

Chaqueri, Cosroe. 2011. The Left in Iran, 1941-1957. Pontypool [Wales] : Merlin.

Elm, Mostafa. 1992. Oil, Power, and Principle : Iran”s Oil Nationalization and Its Aftermath. Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse U.P.

Elwell-Sutton, L. P. 1955. Persian Oil : A Study in Power Politics. London : Lawrence and Wishart.

Farmanfarmaian, Manucher. 1997. Blood and Oil : Memoirs of a Persian Prince. London : Prion Books.

Floor, Willem M. 1985. Labour Unions, Law and Conditions in Iran (1900-1941). Durham : University of Durham.

International Labour Office. 1950. Labour Conditions in the Oil Industry in Iran : Report of a Mission of the International Labour Office (January-February 1950). Geneva : ILO.

Katouzian, Homa. 1999. Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran. 2nd ed. London ; New York : New York ; I.B. Tauris ;

Keddie, Nikki R. 2006. Modern Iran : Roots and Results of Revolution. Updated ed. New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press,.

Kemp, Norman. 1953. Abadan : A First-Hand Account of the Persian Oil Crisis. London : A.Wingate.

Ladjevardi, Habib. 1985. Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran. Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press.

Longhurst, Henry. 1959. Adventure in Oil : The Story of British Petroleum. London : Sidgwick and Jackson.

Louis, William Roger. 1984. The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951 : Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism. Oxford : Clarendon,.

Marashi, Afshin. 2008. Nationalizing Iran : Culture, Power, and the State, 1870-1940. Seattle ; London : University of Washington Press,.

Musaddiq, Muhammad. 1988. Musaddiq’s Memoirs. London : JEBHE.

Seccombe, I. J., and R. Lawless. 1987. Work Camps and Company Towns : Settlement Patterns and the Gulf Oil Industry. Durham : University of Durham, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

Sharifi, Majid. 2013. Imagining Iran: The Tragedy of Subaltern Nationalism. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.



  1. “Living Conditions in Abadan”, Bahram, 21 January 1946, ArcRef 66098, BP Archive. 
  2. Untitled article, Tehran Mosavar, 25 January 1946, ArcRef 66098, BP Archive. 
  3. “Abadan Labour Movement”, Zafar, 10 May 1946, ArcRef 66098, BP Archive. 
  4. Untitled article, Iran-e Ma, 27 May 1946, ArcRef 66098, BP Archive. 
  5. “The AIOC”, Piroozi, 19 June 1946, ArcRef 66099. 
  6. “Khuzestan Movement”, Rahbar, 19 and 20 June 1946, ArcRef 66099. 
  7. “Strike in Khuzestan”, Rahbar, 15 July 1946, ArcRef 66099, BP Archive. 
  8. “Khaz”al Successor”, Zafar, 5 July 1946, ArcRef 66099, BP Archive. 
  9. The Labour Pen and the Iranian Workers”, Mard-e Emruz, 19 April 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  10. “The Khuzestanis have treasure under their feet but are the poorest people”, Akhtar, 20 April 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  11. “Visit to Khuzestan”, Dad, 13 May 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  12. “How I Found Abadan”, Piroozi, 20 April 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  13. Ibid. 
  14. “Observations in Khuzestan Oil Fields”, Kasra, 22 April, 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  15. “Conditions in Khuzestan”, Mardom, 6 July 1947, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  16. “The Activities of the AIOC and the CUC”, Mardom, 20 April 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  17. “Speech on Oil”, Dad, 23 April 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  18. “Comments on the Abadan Strike of 1946”, Aras, 16 March 1947, ArcRef 66101, BP Archive. 
  19. “Iran”s Oil Should be Exploited By Iranians”, 29 September 1947, Ettela”at, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  20. “Sports for AIOC Workers”, Dad, 18 May 1947, ArcRef 66101;”Best Kept Garden”, Mihan, 16 September 1947, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  21. “Travel Notes”, Eqdam, 11 May 1948, ArcRef 66102, BP Archive. 
  22. “Abadan, the City of Oil”, Saba, 11 January 1950, ArcRef 66106, BP Archive. 
  23. “Notes on Travel of Khuzestan”, Khorush-e Iran, 24 February 1948, ArcRef 66102, BP Archive. 
  24. “Travel Notes”, Eqdam, 11 May 1948, ArcRef 66102, BP Archive. 
  25. “Driving Disorders in Abadan”, Naqsh-e Jahan, 8 June 1949, ArcRef 66104, BP Archive. 
  26. “Abadan News”, Nejat-e Iran, 13 February 1950, ArcRef 66106, BP Archive. 
  27. “Debauchery in Abadan”, Seda-ye Mardom, 1 September 1947, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  28. “Conditions in the Khuzestan Oilfields”, Mardom, 16 July 1947, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  29. “Conditions in Khuzestan”, Mardom, 3 July 1947, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  30. Untitled article, Azadi-ye Sharq, 8 July 1947, ArcRef 66100, BP Archive. 
  31. “Black Gold – Disaster for Iran”, Dad, 4 May 1949, ArcRef 66104, BP Archive. 
  32. “Comments on the “Times” article on Iran and the AIOC”, Bakhtar-e Emruz, 2 February 1950, ArcRef 66106, BP Archive. 
  33. “Telegram to Strikers”, Ettela”at, 2 April 1951, ArcRef 66109, BP Archive. 
  34. “Report from Khuzestan on AIOC Workers” Strike”, Kayhan, 10 April 1951, ArcRef 71838, BP Archive. 
  35. “AIOC Responsible for Abadan Strike”, Bakhtar-e Emruz, 4 April 1951, ArcRef 71838, BP Archive. 
  36. “Strike of AIOC Workers”, Asr, 29 March 1951, ArcRef 66109, BP Archive. 
  37. “What News in the South”, Kayhan, 14 April 1951, ArcRef 54456, BP Archive. 
  38. “What News in the South”, Kayhan, 14 April 1951, ArcRef 54456, BP Archive. 
  39. “Iran Hopes Lies in Khuzestan Workers”, Bakhtar-e Emruz, 1 April 1951, ArcRef 54456, BP Archive. 
  40. “Comments on Events in Abadan”, Asr, 14 April 1951, ArcRef 54456, BP Archive. 
  41. “Disturbances in the South”, Ettela”at, 14 April 1951, ArcRef 54456, BP Archive. 
  42. “Iran Hopes Lies in Khuzestan Workers”, Bakhtar-e Emruz, 1 April 1951, ArcRef 54456, BP Archive. 
  43. “Iranian Delegation in Abadan”, 12 June 1951, ArcRef 54459, BP Archive. 
  44. “Iran Rules Abadan Once More”, Shahed, 10 June 1951, ArcRef 54459, BP Archive. 

2 thoughts on “Abadan in the National Press During the Oil Nationalisation Movement, 1946-51 | Mattin Biglari — ABADAN RETOLD

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