Iran's new finance and economic minister said today his country's once flourishing economy is "not at the brink of financial disaster but is approaching it".

Rostam Pirasteh acknowledged that the country is in "technical default" on some multimillion-dollar loans as Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar sought to maintain ebbing confidence in his government's fortunes. On the eve of a critical, twice-postponed parliamentary debate, Bakhtiar apparently had failed again to persuade retired general Freydoun Jam to stay in the Cabinet as war minister while military and religious rivals to Bakhtiar maintained outright opposition to his government.

Another retired general was unofficially reported to have been recruited to replace the reluctant Jam for the key post designed to win over defiant military leaders.

Pirasteh told journalists that the defaults are due solely to crippling strikes that are part of the opposition's efforts to force Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to leave the country, perhaps for good.

The minister insisted Iran would meet its obligations. "We have the money," he said.

He dismissed as exaggerated published reports that Iran was in default on $9 billion in loans, and also denied that foreign exchange reserves had declined from more than $10 billion in mid-October to $4.5 billion at present. He declined to say where the reserves stand.

Bakhtiar will present parliament with a package of tax reforms and other incentives Thursday designed to get Iranians back to work and isolate political extremists determined to keep the country shut down, he said.

He reaffirmed the government's determination to cut back on the shah's massive arms purchases, saying that Iran faces a choice between guns and butter.

But the forthright assertions took on an air of unreality against the background of seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the Bakhtiar government even if both houses of parliament give it a vote of confidence.

With as many as 25 members of the once-docile, pro-shah lower house signed up to criticize Bakhtiar, and not a single member thought ready to defend him, the 63-year-old liberal politican's chances were far from bright.

The armed forces and the Shiite Moslem leadership -- the bitterly antoganistic forces that carry far greater weight than the actions of parliament -- were outwardly critical of Bakhtiar.

Nor has Bakhtiar improved his chances by the Jam incident. Jam had insisted on control of the armed forces, which neither hard-line generals nor the shah were said to have found acceptable.

Many had looked to Jam as the only man capable of reconciling the military to the shah's often delayed departure abroad, which many observers believe might be tantamount to his abdication.

About 20 hard-line generals went on record opposing the shah's departure during a meeting with the 59-year-old sovereign in his palace Monday. But informed sources close to his wife suggested he might be leaving next Monday if the government is approved by both houses of parliament.

There was no official confirmation of this rumor and the palace has insisted the monarch will leave only in a week or 10 days if the Bakhtiar government has settled in.

Public distrust of the monarch is so deep that many Iranians remain convinced the shah even now thinks he can maneuver his way through the current situation and remain in power.

The shah did little to discourage such speculation in a recent interview with the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. He was said to have conceded that he had been tempted to try to repeat his 1953 experience in which he went aboabroad only to be put back on the throne in a CIA-backed coup. He added he had rejected the thought because of the bloodshed he feared it would involve.

In a day marked by a power cut of nearly five hours -- due to heavy snow collapsing transmission lines from a hydroelectric dam and the exhaustion of fuel for two gas-operated power plants near Tehran -- the only good news was on the oil front.

Mehdi Bazargan, the opposition leader close to the religious movement, scored a substantial success in persuading refinery workers to end their strikes and go back to work.

Resuming refinery production throughout the country could alleviate the critical shortages that have forced Iranians to wait in long lines for gasoline and kerosene used for heating and cooking.

But heating fuel was not expected to be in sufficient supply before spring -- although some gasoline supplies were likely to be restored in a week to 10 days -- according to oil sources.

In other developments, informed sources said the Bakhtiar government is "almostcertain" to replace Ardeshir Zahedi as ambassador to the United States as part of a shakeup of ambassadors.

A Zahedi aide denied the ambassador had resigned and insisted he is still planning to return to his Washington post after a six-week visit during which he has sought to rally hardline military support for the shah.

Once again demonstrations took place in various provincial cities, but all were reported peaceful.

In a sign of the times, a foreign banker walked through the darkened Finance Ministry building without meeting a doorman or any other living soul.

"I had the run of the place with my banker's briefcase," he said, "looking every inch the foreign intruder," whose presence has been denounced by more xenophobic elements of the Iranian opposition.

Newspapers began printing personal advertisements from Iranians denying they are members of SAVAK, the secret police, or protesting they have not legally transferred funds abroad.