Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi has offered to turn over most of his power to a civilian opposition government, the royal palace said today amid reports and denials that the monarch has agreed to leave the country temporarily to ease the year-long crisis.
The shah asked Shahpour Bakhtiar, a leading figure in the opposition National Front, to form a government to replace the military-led Cabinet installed last month. There were some reports that the switchover could come as early as Saturday.
Bakhtiar's acceptance of conditions that would leave the monarchy intact has caused a split in the National Front, however, and raised fears that the move would only lead to further chaos and violence. Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the key religious opposition leader behind the movement against the shah, has said he will settle for nothing less than the removal of the monarch and the end of the Pahlavi dynasty.
There were growing fears that the military leaders might take matters into their own hands, overthrow the shah and install a junta as a last resort.
Senior Western diplomatic sources, meanwhile, said the Carter administration's statement that it was considering sending a naval task force into the Indian Ocean would almost certainly arouse further anti-American hostility here and threaten the safety of U.S. nationals and their property. From his exile in Paris, Khomeini has called for a day of national mourning Saturday commemorating the first anniversary, by the Moslem calendar, of the uprising against the shah. The U.S. Embassy has warned all Americans to remain in their homes.
[In Washington, the Defense Department announced that the aircraft carrier Constellation and several escort ships had been ordered to leave Subic Bay in the Philippines for the South China Sea to be in position to go to the Indian Ocean, about 10 days sailing time, if necessary.]
The fast-moving development came as production from Iran's strikebound oil fields slipped further and the country's fuel crisis grew more acute. The prospects of easing the severe shortages brightened somewhat as the opposition began distributing a statement received today from Khomeini calling on oil workers to produce enough fuel to meet domestic consumption.
The political developments and the oil crisis overshadowed serious continued violence in the capital and throughout the country. Opposition sources said a number of demonstrators were killed today when martial law troops, apparently carrying out tough new orders, opened fire on mobs that tried to set up barricades or burn debris in the streets.
An American photographer who visited the main Behesht-Zahra cemetery south of Tehran said he saw 14 bulletriddled bodies arrive at a mortuary within a half hour, and that victims seemed to be coming in for burial steadily most of the day.
In a telephone interview, Bakhtiar said the shah had agreed during their meeting to leave Iran "provisionally" in favor of a regency council to represent the monarch and facilitate formation of the new government.
But Iran's ambassador to Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, a close confidant of the shah, denied that the 59-year-old monarch would leave.
"The regency council idea is out," he said. Zahedi, who has been here several weeks advising the shah, confirmed that the shah had asked Bakhtiar to form a government. He insisted that the shah would remain as commander in chief of the armed forces in accordance with the constitution.
Zahedi also denied that the military prime minister, Gen. Gholam Reza Azhari who only took office in November to try to stem the crisis, had resigned.
Despite the denials of the shah's offer to leave the country, the mere fact that the report took on wide currency was a new indication of the shakiness of his rule. For many Iranians, it recalled the situation in 1953 when the shah briefly fled the country only to return after the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in a coup led by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The shah also sent his aged mother out of the country Friday. The Iranian Embassy in Washington said that the shah's mother, Tajol-Malouk, had arrived at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on a flight from Iran. According to Los Angeles airport officials, the queen mother and other unidentified members of the shah's family flew from New Jersey to Los Angeles, news services reported early Saturday morning.
[Most of the shah's family is already outside Iran except for the shah, his wife Farah and their three young children.]
Bakhtiar, speaking of his negotiations with the shah last night over forming a new government, said he had obtained greater concessions from the shah than had former National Front figure Gholam Hussein Sadighi whose attempt to form a government collapsed this week, and National Front leader Karim Sanjabi, who refused a previous request by the shah to lead a civilian administration.
Bakhtiar listed the concessions as "the provisional departure of the shah" and "the constitution of a regency council" to reign in his absence.
Bakhtiar said the new government would have complete control over the armed forces, and that the army would be represented in the Cabinet.
He said the shah told him he was tired and wanted to go abroad for an unspecified period. Bakhtiar added that the length of the shah's absence was up to the monarch himself, implying that he could return as a figurehead king with greatly reduced powers when the turmoil had abated.
The elderly opposition leader said he "hoped to finish consultations soon with friends and colleagues of the National Front" to line up ministers for his proposed government. He said the Cabinet would include "either National Front members or personalities who have not been involved in the past 25 years of corruption."
Bakhtiar criticized National Front chief Sanjabi, whom he unsuccessfully tried to persuade to endorse his plan. He said Sanjabi was "jealous" and that the National Front "does not belong exclusively to him."
Besides disputing Bakhtiar's statement, Ambassador Zahedi was much less categorical that such a government would actually be installed. He said that after the late night meeting Thursday between Bakhtiar and the shah, it was agreed that Bakhtiar would have "three or four days to see if he can form a government." Zahedi said the leaders of both houses of parliament would meet the shah Saturday to discuss the proposal and seek a solution to the country's widespread disturbances.
Some analysts here regard Bakhtiar as a political lightweight, and his choice as another sign of the shah's desperation in trying to line up a civilian government that would permit him to stay on the throne. A European diplomat commented, "bakhtiar is not of a high stature at all."
A statement by Sanjabi repudiated the Bakhtiar plan, saying he "does not represent the position of the National Front." The statement said the Front stands by its earlier rejection of participation in any government under the "present illegal monarchical regime."
A spokesman for Sanjabi said Bakhtiar's acceptance of the shah's request increased the prospect of "a military coup in Iran."
Western diplomats doubted that Bakhtiar would be able to line up enough qualified supporters as ministers. They said that, in any case, such an administration would be unlikely to satisfy either the hardline religious opposition or the army, Bakhtiar has a reputation of being antireligious and he is unlikely to satisfy the religious leaders calling for the shah's ouster.
"It really strikes me as being one more step too late, as it has been all year," one diplomat said.
"I can't see the army lining up behind Bakhtiar," said another. "And I can't see the shah going off and leaving someone like Bakhtiar in charge of the country. He's not prime minister material at all."
Senior Western diplomats said the upheavals which have already made Iran virtually ungovernable were likely to be aggravated by the statements from Washington that a task force may be dispatched to the area if the situation in Iran worsens.
"Some Napoleans back there in Washington think they can influence things here by this kind of psychological warfare," one official said. "I find it utterly ridiculous. It's the typical attitude of tin soldiers who think they comprehend what's going on here when they don't understand a damned thing."
He said more acts against Americans could be expected once the news has spread to Iranians, who will probably interpret it as an American threat to intervene in Iran to keep the shah on the throne.
"Radio Moscow is putting it out on the hour," in its Persian-language the hour," in its Persian-language broadcast, the diplomat said. "This is just duck soup for them. It's a perfect example of how to screw up a situation."
"There must be a reaction here," a European diplomat said. "It will surely have an effect on Americans in Iran. And it's just sort of thing the Russians said the Americans would do."
Anti-American sentiment has been building up steadily in recent weeks as Iranian opponents of the shah blamed Washington for keeping him in power by supporting the army. The worsening fuel crisis has not improved their mood or their disposition to the government.
The National Front said it sent a delegation headed by a senior member, Kazem Hassibi, to the southwestern oil center of Ahwaz today to help "resolve the oil crisis one way or another."
The Front claimed the government was exaggerating the crisis by withholding distribution of refined products in an effort to provoke a backlash against the opposition.
But oil industry sources said production slipped to 270,000 barrels Friday, less than half the amount normally needed for domestic use. Besides, they said, refining and distribution operations are virtually closed because workers are either on strike or afraid to return to their jobs because of intimidation.
The National Front spokesman conceded, however, that if its inquiry shows not enough crude is being produced, "we will ask the oil workers to raise production."
He said instructions had come from Khomeini's Paris exile that oil workers should produce enough refined products for domestic consumption.
Industry sources said, however, that increased production alone could not entirely solve the problem because stocks of petroleum products normally reserved for winter use have already been depleted.