Abadan: The Rise and Demise of an Oil Metropolis | Kaveh Ehsani and Rasmus Christian Elling


Originally published in MERIP

Summer 2018

Kaveh Ehsani is assistant professor at DePaul University and a contributing editor of this[MERIP] magazine; Rasmus Christian Elling is associate professor at University of Copenhagen.


[ Part I ]

An excerpt from the 1958 annual report of the Netherlands-based subcontractors Iranian Oil Operating Companies. COURTESY OF PAUL SCHROEDER.

In fall 1978, Abadan’s oil refinery workers played a decisive role in the Iranian Revolution by joining the national mass strikes. Just two years later, Abadan and the adjoining port city of Khorramshahr were shelled by the invading Iraqi army and effectively destroyed during the Iran–Iraq war (1980–88), which scattered their population of over 600,000 as refugees across Iran and abroad. The bloody liberation of Khorramshahr (May 1982) turned the tide of Iraqi advances. Abadan’s refinery workers remarkably kept up production under constant shelling through eight years of war and international sanctions, earning the two cities a prominent place in post-revolutionary Iran’s official mythology of the “Sacred Defense.” Despite state propaganda lionizing the workers, postwar reconstruction has not been kind to either city.[1]Prior to the war, Khorramshahr had been Iran’s largest port, while the much larger Abadan was home to one of the world’s largest refineries. Both cities were major commercial centers in the late 1970s. A major tourist destination with posh resorts and nightclubs, cinemas and shopping centers,[2] Abadan also boasted Iran’s second major international airport and a large bazaar. The region’s agricultural economy was booming with date plantations geared to export. Abadanis boasted of their soccer teams, leisure clubs, petroleum university, artists and prominent intellectuals. Abadan is now a postindustrial shell of its former glorydays as a beacon of modernity: a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and progressive city that had played decisive roles in national and global events. Today’s Abadan resembles deindustrialized Detroit or Gary, the former US automobile and steel cities that fell victim to neoliberal globalization. But Abadan was also the target of military invasions, failed postwar reconstruction and ecological crises caused by global warming and human folly. Three decades after the ceasefire with Iraq, the rubble has been largely cleared away and the population is back to the pre-revolution levels, surpassing 300,000 in Abadan and its rural surroundings (Iran’s population increased from 34 to 80 million during the same period). But the city is plagued by environmental, social, demographic and economic crises. Critical air and water pollution, chronic high unemployment, widespread corruption in the public and financial sectors, ethnic and political discrimination and perceptions of state failure to deliver tangible improvements and long-term development have created a constant state of discontent. The disjuncture between official rhetoric and lived reality and the recognition that poor policies are responsible for the crises have created a sense of abandonment and a politics of despair that regularly erupts into riots.[3] If Abadan once epitomized cosmopolitan urban modernity, it has come to embody an opposite imaginary of dystopia underpinned by a melancholic nostalgia for a modernity that is in the past and a future that holds no promise except of further decline.


Part I’ Notes:

1. See Kaveh Ehsani, “War and Resentment: Critical Reflections on the Legacies of the IranIraq War,” Middle East Critique 26/1 (2017).


2. The nostalgia of this lost belle époque is captured in the memoirs collected and analyzed in Rasmus Christian Elling, The Abadan Times: https://abadantimes.com/tag/rasmuschristian-elling/.

3. For the latest, see “Water conditions in Khuzestan and Bushehr lead to mass protests and the closure of Abadan Petrochemical Complex.” BBC Persian, June 23, 2018. For further analysis, see Kaveh Ehsani and Arang Keshavarzian, “The Moral Economy of the Iranian Protests,” Jacobin, January 11, 2018: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/iranian-protests-revolution-rouhani-ahmadinejad

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