Abadan: The Rise and Demise of an Oil Metropolis | Revolution, War and the Aftermath


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.


[ Third part ]

Strikes and protests by NIOC workers in Abadan refinery 1979

The image of Abadan as a vanguard city of oil-driven modernity was transformed by its role in the 1979 revolution and then shattered by the war that followed. Although the Iranian oil industry had been nominally nationalized in 1973, logistic and technical operations remained under the effective control of multinationals. In late summer and autumn of 1978, Iranian oil workers joined the popular call for a mass strike and effectively shut down operations across the sector.

The 1979 revolution marked in the Abadan refinery.
Courtesy of Petromuseum
The Abadan oil company employees at the celebration of the victory of the 1979 Revolution
Courtesy of Petromuseum

The strikers’ main political demands were the full nationalization of the oil industry and the expulsion of all multinational oil companies and the thousands of expatriates who held key positions in technical, managerial and industrial operations. The strike dealt a fatal symbolic and economic blow to the monarchy.[6]

Farid, an Iranian Army soldier in the early months of the Iran-Iraq war at Abadan
Courtesy of Iranian.com

The city’s destruction in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion and the scattering of its population were part of a major political turning point that allowed the Islamic Republic to consolidate its monopoly over post-revolution politics in Iran. Like most of Iran’s war-damaged western frontier, Abadan’s commercial economy and its industrial heart—the harbor, oil refinery, steel mill and petrochemical plant—were never fully rebuilt after the 1988 ceasefire, in part due to the lack of a permanent peace treaty with Iraq. The main hubs of the Iranian oil industry moved elsewhere, and the once vibrant river commerce that had sustained major ports in Khorramshahr, Abadan and Basra in Iraq is today all but moribund.[7] 

Moreover, ill-conceived and poorly executed development projects, including massive dams, sugarcane agribusinesses and water transfer schemes, have caused critical water shortages and pollution throughout the Khuzestan Province. The reservoir of the Gotvand dam on the Karun river, for example, has salt deposits that have spoiled the country’s largest river and main source of drinking water for Abadan, Ahvaz and Khorramshahr. In June 2018, Khuzestan’s representative in the Provincial Higher Council warned of the catastrophic consequences of the province’s water situation by stating that “Karun has become a flowing sewer.” A Majlis representative from Bushehr warned of possible water wars, saying that “our society is on the verge of disintegration.”[8] Significant regional environmental chemical contamination caused by three major wars has further exacerbated the situation. The damming and indiscriminate diversion of upstream rivers by all riparian countries—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria— has led to the catastrophic draining of the vast marshlands of southern Iraq and Iran. The resulting desertification has led to widespread displacement of populations and recurring dust storms that appear apocalyptic in scale and intensity.
The critical state of air quality caused by salt, dust and harmful chemicals has caused the frequent closing of schools, offices and power plants. The poor air quality is also blamed for the rise of chronic health problems in Abadan. Global warming has further exacerbated the crisis, with temperatures rising as high as 130°F. Some climate scientists warn that average temperatures may rise to levels that make the entire Persian Gulf uninhabitable.[9] Amidst these dire circumstances, displaced people who returned after the war to rebuild Abadan barely hang on in a dispiriting atmosphere of neglect and discontent. Even the establishment of the Arvand Free Zone, a large-scale industrial and commercial enclave aimed at reviving the moribund local economy, has failed to generate the kind of progress envisioned in official promotional material. Following the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar Zageneh promised that the lifting of international sanctions would finally reverse the decline of Abadan and Khuzestan by ushering in new capital investments. His predictions have proven hollow, as the city and the oil rich province have continued down the spiral of decline and despair.[10]


Third part notes:

6. See Peyman Jafari, “Fluid History” and “How We Organized the Strike that Paralyzed the Shah’s Regime; Firsthand Account by Iranian Oil Worker”, in Petter Nore and Terisa Turner, eds., Oil and Class Struggle (London: Zed Press, 1980).


7. Nida Alahmad and Arang Keshavarzian, “A War on Multiple Fronts,” Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).

8. BBC Persian, June 16, 2018 and June 27, 2018.


9. See Jeremy Pahl and Elfatih Eltahir, “Future Temperature in Southwest Asia Projected to Exceed a Threshold for Human Adaptability,” Nature Climate Change 6 (2016) and Christoph Schär, “The Worst Heat Waves to Come,” Nature Climate Change 6 (2016).


10. “Petroleum Minister’s Promise to Develop Khuzestan Once Sanctions Are Lifted,” BBC Persian, October 28, 2015.

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