War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike
Rasmus Christian Elling, University of Copenhagen
Published in: Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East
Unsurprisingly, Tudeh and Company accounts of what happened on 14 and 15 July differ. Certainly, there was a clash sometime after 6 p.m., but the otherwise detailed Company accounts are murky on the exact sequence of events. According to one report, “excited irresponsible leaders” had mobilized “an inflamed roaring mob” of several thousand Tudeh supporters to “attack the Arabs” in order to pre-empt an Arab attack on a Tudeh club. After this initial attack, a larger crowd poured into downtown Abadan, where the Arab club was burned down. During the clashes, several prominent sheikhs and Arab (as well as non-Arab) merchants were lynched or killed in fights with crowds, labor activists, and possibly police, including Hajj Haddad, Mahdi Hossein Gazi, Sheikh Naser, and Yusef Kowaiti. These killings, Company officers feared, would “definitely mean an immediate and serious Arab versus Tudeh war.”
The houses and warehouses of sheikhs were looted, while files in the Arab club were confiscated. Police opened fire on looters, and by 2 a.m. on 15 July, the Company had received reports of “about 150 casualties in the hospital, and the mortuary already full,” with between fifteen and twenty deaths. Injuries, the hospital reported, included “mostly clubbing, some knife and gunshot wounds; several broken limbs.” Most wounded and dead, according to this report (and to Tudeh accounts) were Persians; according to other reports, most casualties were Arabs. Tudeh spoke of more than fifty dead, but claimed that actual numbers could never be ascertained, since corpses were dumped in mass graves outside Abadan. Around seventy arrests were made, and there was similar unrest in other cities of Khuzestan. The following day, the atmosphere was tense and full of rumors of impending Arab retribution. Abadan’s governor had initially suggested “that Arabs might be ‘allowed’ to burn down Tudeh H.Q.” to settle the score, but the Company apparently pressured the police to prevent this. In a lengthy report, Counselor of the British Embassy in Tehran, Sir Clairmont Skrine claimed that Tudeh pamphlets called on locals “to make mincemeat” of agents of “the colonising foreign powers” and that when violence broke out, the crowd acted on this invitation by targeting the Arabs. Indeed, British intelligence claimed that they had recorded speeches by Tudeh leaders on 14 July calling on workers to kill named Arabs collaborating with the Company.
According to Skrine, Tudeh had planned that Arabs be “murdered brutally pour encourager les autres; the Arabs were to be cowed, and the power of their Union was to be finally broken by terroristic methods.” He provided a vivid depiction of the violence: At the monster meeting at 6.30 p.m. inflammatory speeches must have been made, for at about 7.30 the roar of a mob out for blood terrified all within earshot. Within an hour the Arab Union Headquarters had been attacked, cars and houses set on fire, and at least three prominent Arab Union supporters brutally murdered in their houses. Bodies were mutilated and thrown into the river, women hacked with knives, houses set on fire. As might have been expected, the Arab population hit back in force and being in greater numbers than the Persians they cudgelled and chopped at a considerable number of Tudeh supporters, perhaps 150. Only the resolute action of Major Fatih [the Abadan head of police] and his men who used rifle fire to quell the mob saved Abadan from much greater catastrophe. Left to themselves, the Arabs might easily have beaten or hacked to death every Persian in the place.
The killing of Hossein Gazi was described by another Company officer: “The crowd found this unfortunate man at home and brutally beat him to death with clubs. In the end his head was torn off and carried away. The crowd blooded themselves and their clubs with the blood of their victims.” The language is dramatic and the depiction of the crowd racist: the mindless, monster-like mobs of bloodthirsty Orientals out to terrorize, mutilate, and behead each other—and in the process, to raze the modern urban order. The description of violence is marked by feral viciousness: bodies— even the bodies of women—were “hacked,” “cudgeled,” and “chopped” with primitive weapons, while the attackers ritualistically smeared themselves with blood. The only force that quelled the mob and saved Abadan was the rational thinking, modern rifles, and “resolute action” of Major Fateh—the only official Company ally in this situation. Thus, the British diplomats and Company officers maintained that Tudeh had started the violence, but that both sides constituted irrational crowds. Unsurprisingly, in their testimonies before a military tribunal convened by the Iranian authorities after the unrest, Tudeh activists presented a quite different account.
Their testimonies were recorded by Farajollah Mizani (a.k.a. Javanshir), a prominent Tudeh activist who published them in exile in 1980 in the form of a booklet. During the trial, Tudeh leader Hossein Jowdat outlined a conspiracy: aided by British forces and Iraqi Arab nationalists, the Company had incited the Arabs to crush the labor movement. According to him, the first step was to bring Sheikh Abdollah, along with weapons and ammunition, from across the Shatt al-’Arab (Arvand Rud, in Persian) into Abadan’s vicinity. By arming the Arabs, the Company would create chaos during the general strike, thus spoiling an otherwise orderly and legitimate industrial action. The end goal, Jowdat maintained, was to destroy Tudeh and stir the Arabs towards a separatist rebellion that could secure Britain’s oil interests. To prove the British hand in this conspiracy, Jowdat claimed that those scheduling the opening of the Arab club had made calculation errors between the Islamic and Iranian calendar, and that an ATU proclamation calling for violence against Tudeh bore signs of a clumsy translation from English to Persian. Furthermore, Jowdat claimed that the Company had distributed employment notices in the region on the first day of the strike in order to attract hordes of unemployed riff-raff to Abadan. When these people converged in the city and were informed that the jobs had already been taken, they would drift around aimlessly in the streets, creating an atmosphere of disorder, and eventually loot the residences of prominent sheikhs and merchants. Jowdat explained that clashes started when Arabs attacked a car carrying two Tudeh members who were about to inspect their own club. A melee resulted in the shooting of a Tudeh member, which in turn attracted others to the scene, including the aforementioned loitering riff-raff. Violence escalated from here, just as the Company had planned. The next day, the military ejected the drifters from Abadan, rendering a proper investigation impossible. With this account, Jowdat exonerated Tudeh from the violence, placing the blame squarely on the Arabs, “the British” and the unemployed mobs.
Although this explanation differs from the official British line, some of the wording is quite similar. For example, Jowdat explained that the Company had unleashed a “monster of turmoil and disorder and mayhem” (hayula-ye eghteshash va na-amni va harj-o-marj). The violence of the real culprits— certain Arabs (referred to euphemistically as “contractors”) and the “loiterers” or “riff-raff”—was either mindless or rooted in suspicious motives. The Arab tribes and the riff-raff had “terrorized” ordinary people and ruined the state of peace and order instituted by Tudeh. Underlying this language, I would argue, is a tangible urban/rural discrimination, which intersects with perceived ethnic and ideological differences between the Arabs and Persians. While Tudeh leaders are careful not to indict the Arabs wholesale, and instead distinguish between loyal Arab compatriots and suspicious Arab “outsiders,” they nonetheless paint a picture of regressive tribes and treacherous separatists hiding across the river in Iraq. The Arab enemy, in this account, has descended from the backwaters, armed by the British and then placed in the heart of Abadan’s modern urban space, thus reawakening a backward monster and unleashing it upon the progressive order championed by socialism. Apart from Company records and Tudeh testimonies, there is an eyewitness account by the esteemed writer and translator Najaf Daryabandari, which contains interesting details.
According to Daryabandari, Sheikh Haddad, who was beheaded during the violence, was a famous character in Abadan’s urban life: he was a well-paid contractor, and would tour the city every day in a fancy open jeep; his office functioned as headquarters of Arabs working for the Company, which is why it was stormed by Tudeh. Daryabandari acknowledged that, during the clashes, “a sort of Persian-Arab fight took shape,” but argued that the real reason for the clashes was to be found in Company-Tudeh relations. He added that no ethnic violence had occurred after 1946. The day after the clashes, Daryabandari witnessed how “the ground and walls of [Haddad’s office building] were smeared in blood,” while “martial law was declared, the trade unions were besieged and labor activism in Abadan curtailed.” However, Daryabandari recalls, activism “stayed in our hearts and minds and attracted us to the Tudeh Party and to resistance against the Company.” Whether they had instigated the Arabs or not, the British reacted to the violence with trepidation. First, a sloop was anchored in the Shatt al-’Arab, threateningly facing Abadan.
A British-Indian brigade was then deployed to Basra, ready to move into Khuzestan. British diplomats feared that the strike had only been the first step of a larger Soviet-backed scheme to disrupt oil production and ultimately oust the British from Iran. The Foreign Office, however, remained opposed to the idea of arming the Arabs in the event of further labor disturbances. Yet maybe such action was already redundant: indeed, the consul in Khorramshahr triumphantly declared in August that the combined effect of a British military presence in Basra and Iraqi agitation over the repression of Iran’s Arabs had had “the very desirable effect of stimulating the [Iranian] Central Govt. into taking more vigorous measures against the Tudeh.” Although the Company eventually agreed to Friday pay, thus ending the strike, the violence was utilized by Company-loyal local authorities as an excuse for draconian measures against the labor movement. There were mass arrests of Tudeh members, and all gatherings of more than three people were outlawed. Jowdat describes this situation as resembling a military occupation. The Company’s “Iranian-lookalike” forces placed sentinels with machine guns on the roofs of private homes, holding the laborers hostage in their own city: “Soldiers and armed policemen had occupied the streets, public centers and thoroughfares of the city, and everywhere you could see the flash of bayonets.”
Tudeh was forced to retreat and reorganize underground, as the laborers had lost control over Abadan. Yet the Company’s foothold was unsustainable. Across Iran, newspapers gave extensive coverage to the violence as yet another example of British meddling in Iranian affairs and of the peril of Arab separatism. The experiences of July 1946 radicalized the leftist and anti-imperialist current, and in the aftermath of the strike, Prime Minister Qavvam conceded a number of cabinet posts to pro-Tudeh politicians. Five years later, with the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, British hegemony in Khuzestan came to an end. The very last remaining Company employees in Abadan, “toting tennis rackets and golf clubs” along with all their belongings, gathered in the Gymkhana Club–the first club in Abadan and a symbol of segregation–from where they were evacuated out of Iran on a British gunboat to the sound of a military band playing ‘Colonel Bogey’.
Meanwhile, the disheartened Arab sheikhs feared that their peers would end up joining Tudeh out of fear for retribution. British diplomats reported that the military tribunals set up by the Iranian authorities were severely biased towards Tudeh, and that the Arabs themselves had not cooperated in a proper manner by documenting their side of the events. Leading sheikhs went into hiding, while others headed to Baghdad and Cairo, where they presented the Khuzestani Arab case before the Arab League. The Iraqi and Egyptian press expressed solidarity with their Arab brethren and outrage at the Iranian government and Tudeh. In the end, however, the Arabs did not receive international support sufficient for re-launching an autonomist movement—nor did they win any justice from the Iranian state. The Arab clubs were shut down, and to this day it remains virtually impossible for Arabs—still considered with suspicion by the authorities—to organize politically inside Khuzestan.
The city of Abadan was simultaneously the stage for and the object of the July 1946 clashes. The fight over a particular socio-spatial unit—the club—in the urban landscape of a city such as Abadan was an expression of multi-layered conflicts over resources and power in a modern nation-state. The club developed from being the symbol of a British/European/white enclave in a segregated city to become, first, a symbol of resistance against imperialism in a multicultural city marked by leftist mobilization, and finally, for some Arabs, a symbol of a minority’s fight for representation in a nation-state dominated by a Persian-speaking majority. Thus, there were multiple interests at work in the violence that interacted in more complex ways than the simplified binaries of Arab/Persian, contractor/wage earner or tribal/leftist suggest.
Ethnicity certainly played a role: there is ample evidence that the mobilization, contention, and violence were perceived by all sides at least partially to reflect ethnically framed emotions, demands and interests. But it is important not to reduce the clashes to a straightforwardly ethnic conflict: the presence of some Arabs among the labor activists, and the fact that not all Tudeh targets were Arabs, underscores that the lines were blurred. Although the Arab community remained partially marginalized from the rest of the city, Abadan was also a place of intermingling, cosmopolitanism, and peaceful coexistence. As Daryabandari mentions, there have been practically no overt inter-ethnic tensions in Abadan after 1946, with the partial exception of the heated days of the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79. In other words, it would be wrong to perceive the 1946 violence as an expression of inherent primordial animosity between “Arabs” and “Persians”. Similarly, the conflict should not be boiled down to a mere British conspiracy against Iran. Although some Company officers—perhaps on their own initiative, and perhaps in conflict with official British policy—were directly involved, there is also ample evidence that the British government was reluctant to back the sheikhs. Furthermore, the Arab mobilization was not only aimed at the labor movement and Tudeh, but also expressed grievances against the Company. Sober historical research into the relationship of the anti-Tudeh faction in Tehran with the Arab sheikhs in Khuzestan could furthermore shed light on the under-examined topic of center-periphery politics in Iran. But this does not mean that the British government and the Company, with its coercive policies in Khuzestan, can be exonerated.
The oil industry was established according to a colonialist, segregationist logic that was expressed in both its urban development and its labor policy, which favored some groups and marginalized others, thus exacerbating ethnic divides in Khuzestan. This inequality spawned a struggle for physical spaces of political representation such as the club—a key urban space for articulating claims, expressing identity, and demanding representation and inclusion. The club must therefore be located within the context of the various scales of activity at the time: the new global economic imperialism of a Western-owned oil company, Iranian nationalism, leftist labor activism, and the ethnically framed mobilization of a marginalized minority. The stake invested in the club during the urban violence of 1946, then, had as much to do with control over public space in Abadan as with a contestation of national space in Iran.
Note: Author’s pre-print version. reference should be made to the published version in Nelida Fuccaro (Ed.) : Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East (Stanford, 2016).