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It is evident in Standing Rock’s unfolding situation that the ongoing fusion between the state’s war machine and the private oil enterprise triggers much shock and resistance in contemporary politics. To study the colonial nature of violence committed on behalf of energy conglomerates today it is important to remember that the protection of oil interests through organized militarism is a continued form of dispossession that has a long legacy in early 20th century colonial agendas.
With the aim of discussing the role of dispossession and spatial segregation in oil infrastructural planning, I offer a case study of the early colonial moment when the bond between state-sanctioned aggression and the larger oil complex was reinforced. This study focuses on the developmental strategies and defensive schemes of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC; now BP) in Iran’s Khuzestan province. By observing how planning extractive infrastructures around crude oil in South Persia expanded into a project of militarized occupation, the following text offers a reading of the intertwined systems of material, logistics and power structures that shape the relationship between governmental armed forces and corporate actors in the oil industry. Unpacking how militarized violence has shaped the social history of oil since the earlier days of a global shift towards hydrocarbons as a source of energy, I highlight the ways in which organized resistance is informed by the uneven power dynamics brought about by heavily securitized enclaves occupied by oil companies.
Contractual Dispossession and Intermediary Buffer Zones
AIOC’s activities in Khuzestan were authorized by an agreement between Persia’s Shah and William D’Arcy in 1901. Spelled out by George Nathaniel Curzon (1909), Britain’s strategic approach to Iranian territory at the time was primarily connected to an intercontinental system of defense. With the growing threat of Ottoman and Tsarist expansion to the west and north of British-India, Persia was considered the first line of defense or an intermediary buffer zone for the European empire’s trade-centric colonies to the east. In other words, Britain’s priority in setting foreign policy with Iran was the manufacturing of a landscape that functioned as a vast blockade against incoming threats. These policies directly targeted the development of infrastructure on a national scale. For example, road or railway proposals that could connect the vast country or help overcome the geographic barriers of expansive deserts and impassable plateaus were strongly opposed to by the British, whose primary concern was the use of these facilities by other colonial rivals in the region. (Curzon, 1893)
In contrast, the relationship between Darcy’s enterprise and the Persian government was strictly commercial. Due to the temporary nature of the concession, the incoming oil enterprise initially desired little interference with local politics and focused on plans to maximize revenue by developing a new extractive industry around exploiting hydrocarbons. In addition, the company’s presence inevitably necessitated major infrastructural developments in the areas of communication, transportation and delivery in order to mobilize the resources, bodies and information needed for releasing and exporting underground carbon deposits.
By the mid 1920s, With the Royal Navy’s move towards warships equipped combustion engines (Brown, 2003) and the re-commodification of oil as a central source of energy, the assemblages of Persian oil infrastructures became important assets to be included in the larger imperial defensive schemes. Simultaneously, Britain’s increased interest in the emerging oil fields in South Persia led to a series of state investments in APOC, which effectively turned the admiralty into the major shareholder and main consumer of its products. (Ferrier, 1982: 219) The merging of the British state’s far-reaching military apparatus and the oil complex signalled the discovery of a common ground between the two. The oil company benefited from the terrorizing presence of the Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf, and the state’s armed forces advanced a colonial agenda by relying on AIOC’s private propaganda machine to portray Khuzestan as a “barren land,” open for foreign-led ‘modernizing’ developments. (Ehsani, 2014: 136)
The joining of political and economic ambitions between the admiralty and the AIOC reified in a complex set of development models that simultaneously offered the necessary infrastructure for the expansion of the oil assemblage and guaranteed the isolation and means of access control desired by imperial defense planners. The examples that follow bellow highlight how elaborate forms of ‘interstitial bufferzones’ as an early colonial tool of segregation were incorporated into the architecture of Persian oil enclaves.
Area-Denial schemes and Resistance
One of the early results of the state-oil enterprise fusion was the growth in the employment of active or retired military personnel with extensive colonial expertise in India or Iraq. These employees joined the company in different capacities varying from surveyors to defense strategists or field managers and even board members. Their previous encounters with colonized subjects, their expertise in devising spatial models of crowd control, and militarized techniques of dismantling decolonial resistance informed a particular model of urban segregation that came to be known as the signature British oil compound architecture in Abadan.
Since the early years of AIOC’s activities in Khuzestan the company internalized the fear of sabotage to a point of paranoia. Indeed, there have been precedents in the hydrocarbon industry’s history when the concentration of energy and capital in the form of material investment and stored commodity in pipelines and refineries increased the possibility of sabotage by workers and local resistance. (Mitchell, 2011) Within that context, repressing any resistance against the oil assemblage automatically became part of the operating model. Inspired by the growing cooperation between the company and the admiralty, the overall infrastructural planning including pipelines, pumping stations, roads and communication lines followed a militarized logic of defense-in-depth. This defensive approach relied on a center-periphery geographical distinction and required the formation of empty buffer zones between areas under monopolized company control and those out of its jurisdiction. To establish this spatial segregation, the company took advantage of the initial concession’s hegemony and negotiated a long-term lease with the indigenous Bakhtiari khans in northern Khuzestan and the semi-autonomous Sheikh Khaz’al of Mohammarah (now Khoramshahr) in the south. (Wilson, 1926: 205)
The early geographies of oil, particularly in Abadan, became sites where urban history deeply influenced the social history of oil, labor formation and resistance. Over the next decades, the terrains controlled by AIOC became sites of contestation to colonial means of access control and British military hegemony. Prepared by the company’s architects, the master layout of the urbanized sections of Abadan was a material manifestation of militarized corporatism. Once the main sites for the refinery and the southern tank farms were acquired from Sheikh Khaz’al, the residential units for senior Indian staff and the British professionals were constructed in Bawarda and Braim. The houses in these areas were large villas, reminiscent of American suburban architecture with large surrounding lawns. The perimeter of each house was (and still is) lined with English Hedges and fenced off from the maze-like road system. The gated company enclaves were separated from the refinery facilities and indigenous lands by interstitial buffer zones where local construction was discouraged. (Ehsani, 2014: 387) In contrast to these planned neighborhoods, the land between the southern intermediary zone separating Bawarda and the refinery became the site for incoming immigrants in pursuit of labor opportunities to form a vernacular urban fabric. This area later formed the core of the Shahr (Abadan’s town) and became known as Ahmadabad worker settlements. Beginning as an informal residential area, Ahmadabad expanded quickly and soon became a site resistance to the company’s discriminatory and uneven place-making practices. The majority of workers’ solidarity movements, organized resistance and planed labor strikes initiated in Ahmadabad and similar districts such as Abolhassan, Karun. (Ehsani, 2014: 402-3)
The situation soon attracted AIOC’s attention. In response, specific policies were designed and implemented to suppress the workers’ demands for better housing and fairer city planning. Through redevelopment projects funded by the company, a series of wide roads were introduced in Ahmadabad that cut through neighborhoods with well-established communal solidarities. A grid was laid over the “slums” and adjustments were made to remove dead-end alleys to guarantee access from at least two directions. This facilitated the establishment of worker units that conformed to perpetual surveillance; residences that were not only easily observed but also easily accessible for police and military intervention. Following Ahmadabad’s redevelopment a new set of “assigned housing” policies were implemented with the aim of weaponizing the process of space allocation against workers’ solidarity. In another instance, when the workers’ districts began to grow and spread over the planned buffer zones in vicinity to Bawarda’s gated neighborhoods, the company used a classic area-denial scheme in the form of a moat, a deep ditch filled with water from the Arvand River on the northern edges of Bawarda. (Ehsani, 2014: 353)
The Aftermath and Infrastructure of Mobilizing the Image
The continued militarization of space and mounting tensions over the company’s segregative policies developed into a nation-wide political conundrum. The politicians and activists in Tehran began to form coalitions to resist the company that was increasingly acting like an intruding sovereign power. Oil workers expanded their resistance into full-scale strikes that disturbed daily productions. Throughout the oil nationalization and decolonization processes the British war machine maintained an aggressive role in the protection of its interests. However, considering the dispute between the company and the Iranian government was contractual in essence, the state’s military apparatus was unable to mobilize its violence in direct ways.
Thus, far the company had made free use of colonial practices and techniques of urban planning. In the post-nationalization period, however, it relied on principals of industrial management, corporate welfare policies and public image improvement as leading strategies to demand reparation for its loss of property and access to infrastructure. It was in this context that the oil-military complex started to take advantage of its propaganda capacities. The AIOC (which by then rebranded to British Petroleum) began to utilize its commercial infrastructure for mobilizing a vast range of narratives and imagery that portrayed the company as a victim of a “vicious” Iranian government. The company’s new defensive strategy was to highlight its civilian face and secure victory in legal battles by provoking pitiful international sentiment. In other words, the reality of petroleum-related violence and the ways in which it was materialized in the infrastructural planning of Khuzestan’s company enclaves was twisted to re-make the energy conglomerates as the ultimate victim.
The deep involvement of military and defense strategists in oil exploitation processes informs the industry’s infrastructural planning to a large extent. When indigenous and workers’ resistance persists in the face of petro-militarism and uneven neo-colonial power relations, Big Oil relies on its status as a corporation or a “citizen” with its own set of rights. The merging of the state’s military complex with oil corporations’ strategic and economic interests forms the basis of predatory resource extraction in various polities. In unpacking the different dimensions of petroleum related violence in today’s carbon infrastructural planning, it is useful to keep in mind that the merging social, political and economic systems making up the oil complex emerge from an evolution of a network wrapped in corporate secrecy and state militarism from the beginning. This short case study of BP’s planning approaches in Iran from the emergence of the global oil giant to the early postcolonial period offers a historical precedent for challenging the continuation of violent colonial tactics deployed under the auspices of ‘modernization’ or neoliberal progress.