The Iranian govenment reported "brighter prospect" yesterday for ending a crippling oil workers' strike but reports from the fields indicated the two-week-old walkout was generally continuing.
The National Iranian Oil Co. said its crude production had climbed back to 23 million barrels Saturday as some workers began returing to their jobs. That was up from a low last week of 333,000 barrels but still well below the prestrike average of 5.3 million barrels a day.
The strike represents a crucial test for the new military govenment's ability to restore order in this strategically and economically important country thrown into turmoil by popular unrest directed against the autocratic rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The political opposition charged that military leaders had pushed production back up by using soldiers to force workers to return to their jobs.
At least 22 persons were officially reported killed in provincial clashes with troops and police in the last two days, mostly in towns of the southern oil-producting regions. But it was not clear how many of the deaths were linked to government efforts to resume full production.
The capital, hit by its worst rioting a week ago, was calm yesterday. Troops were deployed in force to prevent profest demonstrations against the arrests of two top opposition figures on Saturday.
The National Front issued a statement condemning as "illegal" the arrests of its leader. Karim Sanjabi, and spokesman Dariush Foruhar, and pleding to stand by its new hard-line position calling for the overthrow of the shah.
National Front officials said Sanjabi was being held at a comfortable officers' club in a military compound in western Tehran along with former prime minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who was arrested on unspecified charges last week as part of efforts to appease the growing opposition by prosecuting former officials deemed corrupt or unpopular with the public.
The shah's military govenment yesterday added former Tehran mayor Gholam Reza Nikpay to that list, which includes the former chief of the secret police, Gen. Nenatollah Nassiri, and several former Cabinet officials.
The government's top priority, however, seems to be end the wave of pay and protest strikes - particularly in the oil fields - that have cost the state revenue estimated at more than $1.5 billion over the last month.
The new military governor of the oil province of Khunestan in southwestern Iran warned striking oil workers that they would be dismissed if they did not return to work by Monday. But the governor. Gen. Boghrat Jaffarian, said he could not meet their demands for an end to martial law, formation of a coalition government, release of all political prisoners and expulsion of foreign oil workers.
Instead he promised better pay and working conditions, on top of a recently granted two-stage salary increase of 25 percent.
The national oil company said a "gradual return to work" has started at the southern oil installations.
But a company spokesman could not confirm a report by the state-run Pars News Agency that "all (company) workers and staff" in the oil center of Ahwaz ended their strike Sunday morning.
A political opposition leader charged that at least four people were killed in "serious clashes" that broke out in the Ahwaz area when army troops rounded up strikes and tried to force them back to work at gunpoint.
In the nearby town of Abadan, workers at a 600,000-barrel-a-day oil refinery, one of the world's biggest, voted to continue their strike indefinitely. Nevertheless, the refinery is processing about 350,000 barrels a day, enough to help meet domestic gasoline consumption, using some staff personal who have returned to their jobs and others brought in form outside.
Western diplomats said that although the military managed to end a strike by employes of the national Iran Air by threatening to turn their jobs over to the air force, it is in a much weaker position with the oil workers because soldiers lack the training to operate the country's oil facilities.
Iran has only been losing income from decreased oil exports, but has also been suffering losses from disminished exports of gas to the Soviet Union and from sharply reduced production of petrochemicals, which depend an oil and gas.
Advocates of higher prices in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries stand to gain as the reduction of the world's oil surplus resulting from the Iranian strike reinforces their demands going into an OPEC meeting scheduled next month to discuss oil prices.
Iran is the world's second-biggest oil exporter, after Saudi Arabia on the other side of the persian Gulf. It is a major supplier of Western Europe, Israel and South Africa, but supplies only a small percentage of U.S. consumption.