As Iran's minister of heavy industries, Behzad Nabavi is the proverbial steward rearranging deck chairs on the sinking Titanic. The regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is foundering on the icebergs of fundamentalist inefficiency, corruption and, most of all, the war with Iraq.

Though Nabavi makes speeches and talks to the kept Iranian press, he is generally closed-mouthed about the devastating effect the war has had on Iran's industrial base -- a key indicator of the Iranian economy's slide into bankruptcy.

But even his cheerleading public statements sometimes contain revealing nuggets of information. And secret conversations he has had with confidants, the gist of which has been slipped to us by Tehran sources, are more candid. First the public revelations:

In an interview with the newspaper Jomhouri Islami, Nabavi disclosed that he had shut down the Iranian Mazda factory. "Of course, in reality, I did not shut it down," he said. "The lack of foreign currency did. If foreign currency were available, I would not have done this. We would have had to come up with $45 million to keep Mazda from closing, which we could not do."

In a speech reported by the government newspaper Kayhan, Nabavi said: "Planning for heavy industries is a difficult job. For example, although we have not made our plants dependent on foreign currency, they are dependent on electricity. In the wake of frequent blackouts, our production projects are at a standstill."

In a speech at Tehran University's school of economics, Nabavi voiced this pitiful plaint: "Some people say, 'Change the line of products; don't shut down industry.' But how can we miraculously change our product line? To do so, we need foreign currency."

At a hush-hush meeting with newspaper executives, Nabavi gave an astonishingly frank appraisal of Iran's desperate economic situation, so that the editors could do a better job of keeping hints of trouble from reaching their readers. He ordered that no record be made of the meeting, but not everyone obeyed. A detailed summary of the meeting was smuggled out of Tehran to us.

Nabavi revealed that the only way the regime made it through the year that ended in March was "to draw on $2 billion of foreign currency reserves, which was against the law and which we falsely denied. But {this year}, we can no longer do such a thing and the situation will be that much worse."

Iran's once-thriving auto industry is a shambles, Nabavi confided. To pay salaries at the Khodro plant, the government had to sell shares at ruinously low prices. A British manufacturer "has totally stopped sending spare parts because of our failure to meet our debts," and the parts on hand are taken by influential officials "for themselves and their families and friends."

Factories are kept running at a loss, Nabavi said, because they turn out materiel for the military as well as their normal products. Obviously, none of this creates revenue-producing heavy industry for Iran, and Nabavi knows this better than anyone. "The situation is so bad that it cannot be controlled," he lamented at the secret meeting.