A brief strike by air traffic controllers closed Tehran airport today, stranding hundreds of travelers trying to leave the country and adding to the chaos caused by the paralysis of Iran's transportation system.
With tens of thousands of Westerners trying to leave after being told by their embassies that it is time to go and untold numbers of Iranians fleeing the turmoil and violence besetting the country, the airport strike complicated an already frantic situation.
Although the airport reopened tonight, diplomatic sources said the workers would walk out again if any American or Israeli aircraft sought to land. Both Pan American and Israel's El Al Airline have been sending extra flights here to help with the exodus that began in November.
Pan Am officials said they did not know whether they would be able to land here Tuesday. If Pan Am and El Al are excluded from Tehran the travel crunch will become even tighter, especially for the Americans.
Scores of passengers were spending tonight at the airport. Many of them were Americans, including a group that had traveled all night by bus from Isfahan, in west central Iran, in hopes of finding a flight out. They said another group was coming to Tehran tonight, also looking for a flight.
It is becoming more and more difficult to travel within Iran, a country three times the size of France, or to leave it. All the railroads, including the line to Ankara, Turkey, are closed by a strike. There are no domestic flights because the national airling has been shut down for a week.
A shortage of fuel caused by a strike in the oil fields has cut bus and auto travel. Only a few foreign airlines are still flying into Tehran and if the traffic controllers' action succeeds in excluding Pan Am and El Al, the number of daily flights will be down to three or four.
Americans and Europeans were already leaving even before their embassies recommended Sunday that everyone who was not essential leave the country.
Foreigners have been leaving the struck oil fields of the southwest by charter flight from Abadan, and the government of Iraq has been asked to allow others to travel overland to Basra.
Other foreigners and many Iranians are reportedly traveling by car into Pakistan and Turkey.
With the economy collapsing, security deteriorating and anti-American sentiment rising, Americans who have been here working on military and technical projects are leaving in increasing numbers.
"It's finished. They don't want us here any more," said Hank Black of Los Angeles as he waited with his wife at the airport for a flight that was not able to land. Black, who works for a subsidiary of Bell Telephone, had been teaching Iranians how to maintain telephone circuits.
The Americans who came up from Isfahan, where they were part of Bell Helicopter's training division, expressed disillusionment with Iran and Bell, and bitterness over the hostility they said they had encountered.
"First they tell us to get out of the country and now we're here at the airport and they won't let us leave," one of them siad. "The hell with it."
They said that Bill had not given them any help in getting out of Iran and they asked why the U.S government, having advised them to leave, was not making it possible.
They gave reporters a copy of a letter signed by R. R. Williams, president of Bell Helicopter International, saying, "Until the present shortage of fuel is alleviated, it is impractical to arrange departures of employes or dependents or movement or transport of personal effects."
"The money just wasn't worth what we were going through," said Charlotte Ivins, who was waiting for a British Airways flight that was cancled.
With the exodus accelerating and escape routes diminishing, the pressure is growing on the U.S. and Earopean governments to arrange charter or military flights. Belgium was reported to have sent a military transport today, but other nations, including the United States, have held off, apparently because they do not with to be seen as undermining what remains of the shah's power.