A shroud of silence seems to have enveloped Iran’s oil industry since last fall when the top oil official Hassan Nazih was dismissed under charges of treason, allegedly for failing to purge non-Islamic elements from the ranks of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Even production and export figures have become state secrets. Reports of difficulties in maintaining the officially sanctioned production level of 3.5 million barrels a day are almost impossible to confirm. Spare parts, for example, have apparently become a problem following the US boycott: Some facilities are reportedly cannibalized for parts in order to keep others going, and a high level NIOC delegation traveled to Kuwait in early February for “talks on technical cooperation” with the Kuwait Petroleum Establishment. [1] Flood damage this summer, the absence of foreign technicians, and sabotage by local Arab insurgents are other reported impediments.

Information concerning the activities and demands of the oil workers, who played an intrinsic part in the struggle to overthrow the Shah, is extremely hard to come by. The subject is taboo in the Iranian media. There is considerable circumstantial evidence, though, that political divisions among the oil workers, and their political and economic demands on company management, are playing some role in these developments. Back in September the former energy adviser to the Shah’s government observed that “the continued possibility of strike action implicit in the political and welfare demands of the NIOC employees in the south has significantly reduced the authority of the Tehran headquarters. Real power lies in the oil fields of the south and at the refineries.” [2] NIOC chief Hassan Nazih’s chief adviser characterized NIOC’s biggest problem since the revolution as “management-labor relations.” “An enormous amount of management time,” he said, “has been expended on protracted discussions with the workers’ committees.” [3] The governor-general of Khuzestan province at the time, Adm. Madani, stated that the drop in exports in September was caused by friction between leftist and right-wing workers at the Kharg Island export terminal. [4] Only a small portion of these problems can be attributed to the ethnic struggle in Khuzestan province. Although Arabs make up a majority of the region’s population, they are only about 5 percent of the work force at the Abadan refinery and a somewhat larger proportion in the oil fields. Persistent job discrimination has kept them almost exclusively in lower echelon jobs. [5]

The dismissal of Hassan Nazih in September does not seem to have modified the incidence of labor militancy. Workers at Abadan gave the new oil minister, Ali Akbar Moinfar, an “almost riotous reception” on his first visit there, and he was apparently unable to venture into his Tehran headquarters for several weeks “because of the danger of adverse worker reaction.” [6]

Negotiations for a new three-year wage contract were to begin in March, but there has been no word of their progress or resolution, and they are apparently still continuing in late April. The lack of information of these negotiations, along with the simultaneous drop in Iranian production to no more than 2 million barrels a day and perhaps to less than one million, suggests that the silence from the oil fields may presage a new storm, either against the NIOC management and, indirectly, the regime, or in open struggle among the workers, reportedly divided in unknown proportions between Islamic, radical leftist, and reformist groupings. Another point of contention may be management plans to open negotiations with foreign technicians once the second round of parliamentary elections are completed. [7]


[1] Middle East Economic Digest, February 15, 1980.
[2] Financial Times, June 5, 1979.
[3] Middle East Economic Survey, September 3, 1979.
[4] Financial Times, February 28, 1980.
[5] Middle East Economic Survey, August 27, 1979.
[6] Middle East Economic Digest, March 14, 1980.
[7] Washington Post, September 23, 1979.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Iran’s Oil Workers," Middle East Report 88 (June 1980).

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