Striking Iranian oil workers are unlikely to resume oil exports unless Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi abdicates and leaves the country for good, oil industry and opposition sources said today.
Their attitude makes chances slim that the compromise civilian Cabinet being set up by Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar will be able to start exports flowing again, since Bakhtiar and the shah envision only a "vacation abroad" for the monarch that would retain the principle of his royal rule.
"They will export oil when they export the shah," said an opposition spokesman describing the oil workers' stand.
Oil exports are the key to Iran's effort to pull out of the economic disruption left by more than a year of turmoil. Prestrike oil revenues amounting to approximately $20 billion a year were the backbone of Iran's economy and experts calculate that every day the strike continues the country loses about $70 million.
The freeze in Iranian exports also puts new strain on the already difficult effort to meet rising energy needs in the West. U.S. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger said yesterday that if the freeze continues for another three months, Americans will face the possibility of gas rationing and still more price increases.
Iran's ability to meet domestic oil consumption needs of approximately 600,000 barrels a day, in accordance with an appeal by the religious and political opposition, also is being questioned, the sources said.
The result is that Bakhtiar's new government, which already faces potentially overwhelming political and military challenges, risks being toppled by the fuel crisis and general economic paralysis that plagued the previous military-led Cabinet.
Iranian oil production today hovered at 265,000 barriels, only 4 percent of total capacity and less than a third of the amount normally needed to meet domestic demand during the peak winter season.
Opposition leaders, including the revered Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have appealed for increased production to meet internal needs. But most strikers at oil fields and refineries have remained away from their jobs.
Shortages of gasoline, heating oil and cooking gas have been growing more acute. Lines in front of filling stations and kerosene shops have been lengthening. Cars are driven sparingly on the once-jammed streets of Tehran and black-market gasoline is being sold for at least $7 a gallon, when available.
An opposition delegation representing Khomeini and the secular National Front reportedly has been well received during a tour of the southern oil fields to convey the production appeal. But a hard core of strike leaders seems determined to keep the taps turned off until the shah is overthrown.
Oil industry sources expressed doubt that this hard core, which seems to dominate the strike action, would agree to resume exports if the shah merely left for the planned "holiday" and his monarchy continued to be represented by a regency council that would reign over the Bakhtiar government. Under this solution, the military leadership of generals loyal to the crown would be left largely intact, and martial law would be lifted only gradually.
The main religious and political leaders have raised oudbts about the resumption of oil exports under these conditions. There are indications in any case that the striking oil workers, newly aware of their power to influence events, may swerve from strict adherence to the opposition line.
Observers point to the outcome of Khomeini's envoys to the oil fields as a demonstration of the strikers' growing independence.
In any case, industry sources say, it is not as simple as opposition leaders imagine to produce oil only for domestic consumption. A major problem is that storage tanks at the Abadan refinery, the world's largest, are full of heavy fuel oil, of which Iran uses little. These stocks have to be exported or stored somewhere else before refining at Abadan can fully resume, sources said.
Of Iran's total refining capacity -- about 900,000 barrels a day -- about 200,000 barrels are heavy products. The light and middle distillates, such as gasoline and kerosene, cannot be produced without also yielding the heavy products, notably "bunker-C" fuel for oil tankers.
"The mix isn't what you need for domestic use," one source said. "And there's not a lot of excess storage capacity, so the surplus fuel oil has to be exported."
In addition, more oil production than necessary for domestic consumption is required to produce the gas that is now in short supply for homes and industries all over the country, the sources said.
Another problem lies in maintenance and startup operations for Iran's idle refineries, once their workers agree to return to their jobs. The exodus of foreign oil workers adds to all these difficulties, especially for the long term, the sources said. The last 65 of some 2,500 oil workers and dependents in the southern producing region left Iran in the past two days.
Iranian oil workers and supervisers can manage production of most of Iran's normal output themselves. But maintenance operations largely handled by foreigners up to now, probably would slip in the short term, with potentially serious consequences for oil installations afterward.
Over the long term, if foreign oil men do not return, exploration, drilling, construction and planning also are likely to suffer, with the result that production capacity would decline from 6.5 million barrels a day. Complicated gas injection projects to boost pressure in some oil fields would be especially affected by the continued absence of the foreigners, industry sources said.