A three-week-old oil workers' strike that has slashed Iranina production to one-sixth of normal shows no signs of ending quickly, with the shah unwilling to use force and the strikers firmly set on political demands that could lead to his overthrow.
Two days ago production slumped to a low of 880,000 barrels, according to informed insiders, and rose to 1.13 million barrels Wednesday only thanks to the arrival of 50 specially trained Iranian navy technicians. Iranian production was running at more than 5.3 million barrels a day before the strike.
The government depends almost totally on the oil exports for the $22 billion to $23 billion in annual foreign exchange earnings that finance the shah's ambitious plans to modernize the country. Prolonged disruption in the oil fields would have devastating effects on the national economy.
Neither the military government named Sunday nor a promised 10 percent pay raise appears to have deterred the strikers from persevering in their walkout, which started Oct. 18. Especially worrying to the government is the realization that whatever production is tolerated by the strikers is earmarked essentially for the domestic market, which is getting about $50,000 to $60,000 barrels a day.
Symptomatic of government concern was the refusal of National Iranian Oil Co. officials here to discuss the strike and its effects openly. Local military commanders also canceled previously agreed appointments with foreign reporters.
The strike, the second since September, began when staff members walked out for the first time in Iranian oil history, apparently angered by management's refusal to give them the same raises provided day laborers in September.
By Western standards it is a strange strike. Workers are still paid, still live in company housing, still drive around in company cars with company-provided gasoline and, in the case of Abadan refinery workers, still show up for their regular shifts, but do little if any work.
No sabotage has been reported, but company insiders are increasingly worried about a general lack of housekeeping in the vast Khuzestan oilfields. maintenance staffs in the Khuzestan fields are repoted working at less than one-third normal strength and their failure to repair oil leaks could eventually pose a safety problem, according to specialists.
So far the only strikers returning to work have done so with strike leaders approval. For the most part they are involved in distributing petroleum products throughout the country where, for example, the relatively thin gas station network has caused gasoline shortages even in Abadan, site of the world's largest refinery.
Of course, we are producing for the home market, an indignant staff member said, "I'd kill any fellow striker who tried to keep me from getting heating oil to my old mother in Isfahan now that winter is coming in."
Despite recurring reports of an ultimatum for employes to return to work or face firing, the national oil company's approach has not been based on threats. However, the army in Abadan cleared strikers away from the refinery main gate and from the company hospital grounds, where they had sought refuge over the weekend.
There has been no discernible meeting of the minds - quite possibly because the shah shows no sign of wanting to crack down hard to break the strike while the strikers seem incapable of realizing he is unwilling to accept all their demands.
At so far inconclusive meetings, the strikers keep insisting on their political demands, which management says are outside its purview.
Principal political demands include:
Dismantling SAVAK, the once all-pervasive and dreaded secret police whose former chief is under arrest.
Release of all political prisoners, a process which the government says is well under way.
Ending martial law and the recently imposed military government.
Removing foreign advisers, especially Americans, whose jobs can be performed by Iranians.
Even some economic demands - such as reduced manning schedules for offshore drilling crews - are considered in some quarters as impossible to meet now because of a shortage of trained Iranian manpower.
Negotiation at best seem spaced out at odd intervals. Oil company chief Hushang Ansary appeared at one negotiating session two weeks ago. He is now reported out of the country - like many of the shah's once closest lieutenants - pursued by demands for his arrest on corruption charges lodged by strikers in the central oil company in Tehran.
Interviews with two young leaders of the spontaneous coordinating committee running the strike at the Abadan refinery suggested a devotion to uptopian ideals rather than the give-and-take of labor-management struggles.
Claiming no prior ties with any political opposition party, religious or ccommunist, the leaders spoke disdainfully of a new 10 percent pay offer which the government made Wednesday in hopes of breaking the strike.
"We were suppressed for so many years. We suffered for so long," one leader said, "that now we have burst.
"It was not the shah who liberalized," he added vehemently, "but we who grasped liberalization from him. We took it."
"I say why did my father not act and I do not want my son to ask me the same question," his colleague said.
"We know we might be killed, but we say we are no better thqn the people who were killed in the Rex Cinema here in Abadan or in Saleh Square in Tehran," he added.
He was referring to a fire in which 377 people were burned to death in August and the September incident in which several hundred Iranians were shot and killed by troops.