Skip to main content Accessibility help

Anatomy of an Iranian Political Crowd: The Tehran Bread Riot of December 1942

  • Stephen L. McFarland (a1)


During the morning of December 8, 1942, a large group of university students paraded through the streets of Tehran to the parliament building on Baharistan Square to demand higher bread rations and prompt action on critical problems by an incompetent government and an inactive parliament. Spectators and organized groups from South Tehran added their numbers to the already large crowd. Police forces withdrew from the square and the demonstration became a riot. The crowd occupied the parliament building and moved toward the commercial district, smashing windows and signs and looting stores along the way. On the morning of December 9, students again instigated a march to the parliament building, but this time army troops firing machine guns met and dispersed them. Although city shops were closed on December 9, some reopened on December 10, and all reopened on December 11; normality had returned. The bread riot claimed over 20 people killed, 700 wounded, 150 arrested, and 150 stores sacked and burned.



Hide All

1 Official government casualty estimates have been used in this case because they are the only published figures available. Allied intelligence reports duplicated these figures, though the reports did question their accuracy. Official government counts, however, are notoriously underestimated. The use of machine guns against massed urban mobs, especially given the condition of wartime Iran's medical services, makes these statistics questionable at best.

2 For example, see Kirmani, Husayn, Az Shahrivar-e 1320 ta Faji'eh-ye Azerbaijan va Zanjan, 2 vols. (Tehran, 1946/1947, 1950/1951), 2:301–56;Popov, M. V., ‘Nachalo Agressii SShA v lrane v Gody Vtoroi Mirovoi Voiny,’ Voprosy lstorii, no. 11 (11 1949), p. 39;Lenczowski, George, Russia and the West in Iran, 1918–1948 (New York, 1949), pp. 195–96;Keddie, Nikki R., Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (New York, 1981), p. 115;Avery, Peter, Modern Iran (New York, 1965), p. 365;Rubin, Barry, The Great Powers in the Middle East 1941–1947: The Road to Cold War (London, 1980), p. 84;Times (London), December, 1942, p. 3;Millspaugh, Arthur C., Americans in Persia (Washington, 1946), p. 45; Minister to Tehran Louis Dreyfus to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, December 8, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1981, Decimal File, Department of State, National Archives (hereafter DSNA); and Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, 1982), p. 183. Unfortunately, the Iranian press was unable to report the riot. On December 8, 1942, the government of Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam closed Tehran's vituperative press. Newspapers did not reappear for two months, by which time new and more pressing issues were at hand. Also the Iranian parliament had passed a new press law that for a time intimidated press coverage of controversial subjects. See Elwell-Sutton, L. P., “The Iranian Press, 1941–1947,” Iran 6 (1968), 66.

3 On the Middle Eastern crowd, see Abrahamian, E., “The Crowd in Iranian Politics 1905–1953,” Past and Present, 41 (12 1968), 184210; and Shoshan, Boaz, “Grain Riots and the ‘Moral Economy’: Cairo, 1350–1517,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10 (Winter 1980), 459–78. On European crowds, see Rudé, George, The Crowd in History; A Study in Popular Disturbances in France and England. 1730–1848 (New York, 1964);Thompson, E. P., “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (02 1971), 76136; and Kettering, Sharon, Judicial Politics and Urban Revolt in Seventeenth- Century France: The Parlement of Aix, 1629–1659 (Princeton, 1978).On hunger riots, see Booth, Alan, “Food Riots in the North-West of England 1790–1801,” Past and Present 77 (11 1977), 84107;Williams, Dale Edward, “Were ‘Hunger’ Rioters Really Hungry? Some Demographic Evidence,” Past and Present 71 (05 1976), 7075; and Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845–1849 (New York, 1962). On the theoretical aspects of riots, see Firestone, Joseph M., “On the Underlying Causes of Urban Riots,” General Systems 19 (1974), 117–33;Gurr, Ted Robert, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, 1970);Masotti, Louis H. and Bowen, Don R., eds., Riots and Rebellion: Civil Violence in the Urban Community (Beverly Hills, 1968); and Paynton, Clifford T. and Blackey, Robert. eds., Why Revolution? Theories and Analyses (Cambridge, 1971).

4 Dreyfus to Hull, May 9, 1943, RG59, 891.6222/14, DSNA; and Kirk, George, “The Middle East in the War,” in Toynbee, Arnold, gen. ed., Survey of International Affairs 1939–1946 (London, 1953), p. 468.

5 U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1941, 3 (Washington, 1959), 463–64 (hereafter FRUS, followed by appropriate year);Lenczowski, Russia and the West, pp. 195, 198–99;Lloyd, Edward Mayow Hastings, Food and Inflation in the Middle East, 1940–1945 (Stanford, 1956), p. 159; Chargé in Iran Cornelius Engert to Hull, March, 1940, RG59 891.5011/8, DSNA; and Engert to Hull, April 1, 1940, RG59, 891.5011/9, DSNA.

6 Ittila'at (Tehran), Shahrivar 19, 1320, p. 1;Ibid, Esfand 9, 1320, p. 1; and FRUS, 1942, 4:128–33, 140–41.

7 Lloyd, Food and Inflation, p. 356. Sweetened tea and wheat in the form of bread were the main sources of calories and nutrients in wartime Iran.

8 Ittila'at, Esfand 28, 1320, pp. 1, 3;Ibid., Bahman 30, 1320, p. 1; Ibid., Azar 26, 1320, p. 1; Lloyd, Food and Inflation, p. 159; and FRUS, 1942, 4:122–23, 142–43.

9 A piece of Iranian bread is a large slab of unleavened bread baked in an oblong shape approximately 9–12 inches wide by 2–3 feet long by ½ inch thick.

10 Bank Markazi Iran Bulletin 1 (May–June 1962), 82; undated memorandum, RG59, 891.5017/16, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull. October 1, 1941, RG59, 891.5017/15, DSNA; and Lloyd, Food and Inflation, p. 159.

11 Ittila'at, Bahman 4, 1320, p. 1;Bahman 16, 1320, p. 1;Farvardin 21, 1321, p. 1;Farvardin 24, 1321, p. 1; and Farvardin 25, 1321, p. 1. Over 85% of the parliament were landlords or merchants. See Abrahamian, Ervand, “Factionalism in Iran: Political Groups in the 14th Parliament (1944–46),” Middle Eastern Studies 14 (01 1978), 32.

12 FRUS, 1942, 4:336.

13 Ibid., 4:151.

14 Qavam had been responsible for bringing the second (1922–1927) and third (1942–1945) American financial advisory missions to Iran. For the opposition of Mossadeq, see Kay-Ustavan, Husayn, Siyasai-e Movazaneh-ye Manfi dar Majles-e Chahardahom, 2 vols. (Tehran, 19491950), 1:9091.

15 Dreyfus to Hull, August 9, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1902, DSNA;New York Times, August 4, 1942, p. 36;Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, p. 181;Fatemi, Nasrollah S., Oil Diplomacy: Powderkeg in Iran (New York, 1954), p. 208; and Enclosure in Bullard to Baxter, May 7, 1945, FO371, 45432, in Greaves, Rose L., “1942–1976: The Reign of Mohammad Riza Shah,” in Amirsadeghi, Hossein and Ferrier, R. W., eds., Twentieth-Century Iran (New York, 1977), pp. 5657.

16 Ittila'at, Bahman 3, 1320, p. 1; and FRUS, 1942, 4:301.

17 FRUS, 1942, 4:152, 155–57.

19 The Iranian government was reacting against the “midnight disappearances” that characterized Reza Shah's reign and therefore demanded proof of wrongdoing before agreeing to arrest suspects. See FRUS, 1942, 4:339.

20 FRUS, 1942, 4:151, 341; and Dreyfus to Hull, August 9, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1901, DSNA.

21 FRUS, 1942, 4:160–61;Ittila⊃at, Mehr 30, 1321, p. 1; and FRUS, 1942, 4:166–67, 179.

22 FRUS, 1942, 4:180–81, 176.

23 Ibid., 4:195–96; Dreyfus to Hull, November 18, 1942. RG5, 891.00/1970. DSNA; and FRUS, 1942, 4:202–3, 206. The United States also threatened to withhold food shipments to Iran to force action on wheat hoarding and action to break Iranian diplomatic relations with the Japanese. See FRUS, 1942, 4:330.

24 Ittila'at, Ordibehesht 9, 1321, p. 1;Kay-Ustavan, Siyast-e Movazaneh-ye Manfi, 1:91;Kirmani, , Az Shahrivar-e 1320, 2:9, 4041, 286;Lloyd, Food and Inflation, pp. 164, 241–42;Millspaugh, Americans in Persia, pp. 108–9; and Ittila'at, Mehr 26, 1321, p. 1.

25 FRUS, 1942, 4:165–66.

26 Ibid., 4:160–61, 165–66, 155–57, 218; and Lloyd, Food and Inflation, pp. 163–64.

27 Dreyfus to Hull, November 4, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1936, DSNA; Foreign Office, Consular Report, “Tabriz Diary No. 6,” November 1942, F.O. 371, E80/80/34, piece number 35092, Foreign Office Correspondence, 1943, Public Record Office, London (hereafter PRO); “Meshed Political Diary No. 24,” November 1942, F.O. 371, E7/7/34, piece number 35061, 1943, PRO; “Ahwaz Consulate Diary,” November 1942, F.O. 371, E79/79/34, piece number 35090, 1943, PRO; FRUS, 1942, 4:195–96, 207–8; and Dreyfus to Hull, December 14, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1941, DSNA.

28 FRUS, 1942, 4:206.

29 Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza, Mission for My Country (London, 1960), p. 76;FRUS, 1942, 4:195–96;Dreyfus to Hull, November 18, 1942, RG59, 891.00/ 1970, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull, December 8, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1981, DSNA; and Avery, Modern Iran, p. 366.

30 Baharistan or Parliament Square is a large open area immediately before the parliament building at the intersection of three major streets: Ibn Sina, Shah Abad, and Modarris. It was therefore ideal as an assembly point for the protestors and rioters.

31 Dreyfus to Hull, December 8, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1958, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull, December 12, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1965, DSNA; and FRUS, 1942, 4:207–8.

32 The shah promoted Colonel Arfa to general immediately after the riot. For an eyewitness account of the mob's actions in the parliament building, see Kirmani, , Az Shahrivar-e 1320, 2:349–56.

33 For a list of those involved in the conspiracy, see FRUS, 1942, 4:219–20.

34 A Free Polish army was established in Iran beginning in 1941 from among Polish soldiers and refugees captured by the Soviets in 1939.

35 For the events of December 8 and 9, 1942, see Dreyfus to Hull, December 9, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1963, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull, December 9, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1962, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull, December 8, 1942, RG59, 891.00/1961, DSNA;“The Recent Disorders in Tehran,” February 3, 1943, RG226, 28127, Numerical Files, Office of Strategic Services, National Archives (hereafter OSSNA);Kirmani, , Az Shahrivar-e 1320, 2:301–29; and FRUS, 1942, 4:207–22.

36 Four hundred grams of unleavened bread contains about 1,100 calories, just above what was considered the starvation level in World War II.

37 “The Recent Disorders in Teheran”; Lloyd, Food and Inflation, pp. 240, 164–65;FRUS, 1943, 4:603, 606–8, 610–15, 623, 576; untitled report, October 13, 1944, RG226, L4946I, OSSNA; and untitled report, November 7, 1944, RG226, L49151, OSSNA.

38 New York Times, February 7, 1943, p. 5;Ibid., February 15, 1943, p. 5; Ibid., February 23, 1943, p. 6; Dreyfus to Hull, February 15, 1943, RG59, 891.00/1993, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull, January 20, 1943, RG59, 891.00/1983, DSNA;Dreyfus to Hull, January 29, 1943, RG59, 891.00/1990, DSNA;FRUS, 1942, 4:221–22; and “The Recent Disorders in Teheran.” The Tudeh party played no visible role in the December bread riot.

39 FRUS, 1943, 4:355–59, 331–36; and FRUS, 1942, 4:214–17.On the attempt to attract a greater American involvement, see McFarland, Stephen L., “A Peripheral View of the Origins of the Cold War: The Crises in Iran, 1941–1947,” Diplomatic History 4 (Fall 1980), 333–51.

40 In 1946 Qavam again used the Tehran crowd to close parliament and as an excuse to suppress the press and arrest political opponents during the crisis over the refusal of the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from Iran. See untitled report, March 29, 1946, RG226, XL50148, OSSNA.

41 The riot mainly took place outside the bazaar in the new commercial areas along Tehran's major thoroughfares created by Reza Shah and opposed by the bazaar merchants. See Avery, Modern Iran, pp. 359–60; and Bonine, Michael E., “Shops and Shopkeepers: Dynamics of an Iranian Provincial Bazaar,” in Bonine, Michael E. and Keddie, Nikki R., eds., Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change (Albany, 1981), pp. 233–58.

42 Times (London), December 12, 1942, p. 3; and Popov, “Nachalo Agressii SShA,” pp. 39, 41.

43 Although the disturbances connected with the Tobacco Rebellion in 1890–1892 were based on religious scruples against an infidel handling an item of daily and intimate use, in 1942 Iranians showed no apparent compunction in consuming bread made from wheat grown by infidels and baked and distributed under the direction of infidels.

44 See Kettering, Judicial Politics, p. 4. Kettering has examined the role of the political elite in seventeenth-century urban riots of Aix-en-Provence, France.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed