As a major source of energy and revenue, “oil” has been rightly seen as a driver of the world's far-reaching twentieth-century social, political, and cultural transformations. But this conceptual abstraction of petroleum as a homogenous substance—lifted to the surface from static reservoirs and shipped around the world—is belied by the compositional heterogeneity of its deposits and the unpredictable dynamism of the buried geographies that hold them. Such factors have had important consequences within the histories of hydrocarbon-rich states like Iran. In the 1960s and 1970s, Iranian officials sought to build a new industry via the Shahpur Petrochemical Complex, a choice enabled by the unexpected availability of high-sulfur natural gas within the existing spaces of Iran's oil industry, and one that faced opposition from British Petroleum, which operated and largely controlled Iran's oil industry. Using archival and published materials, this article delves beneath the earth to focus on petroleum's sulfur impurities, the uncontrolled transformations of underground petroleum geographies, and the subterranean migrations of natural gas that resulted. It argues that centering notions of uncontrollability and petroleum's multiplicity opens new avenues for studying the histories of developing states like Iran, showing how the spaces opened by uncertainty were politically productive.

You do not currently have access to this content.