Iran's top oil official flew to the southern oilfields today to promote an early resumption of crude exports amid reports the government wants to hold an oil auction next week.
The mission of Hassan Nazih, the new chief of the National Iranian Oil Co., to increase oil production and resume exports after four months of work stoppages seemed likely to encounter trouble from leftist oil workers and technical constraints, industry sources here said.
According to a Tehran newspaper, Iran's provisional revolutionary government wants to sell crude to the highest bidder starting early next week. The sales would bypass the 14- company Western oil consortium that formerly produced and marketed about two-thirds of Iranian crude, the paper said.
It quoted highly placed company sources as saying a barrel of Iranian light crude could fetch as much as $24 a barrel, more than $10 above the price fixed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Several other oil-producing countries have recently been selling on the spot market at prices as high as $23.50 a barrel.
Western diplomats and oil industry sources regarded the report as a trial balloon to test the reaction of potential customers. Consortium sales presumably would continue at levels set by OPEC, but the agreement between the Western companies and the Iranian government was under strain even before the shah's departure, and now is up in the air.
So far the response, especially to the price mentioned, has been unenthusiastic. West German and Japanese sources, whose countries most depend on Iranian oil, said they were interested in resuming purchases, but not at those prices.
The Iranian company also has indicated it wants to rehire foreign oil workers, nearly all of whom left the country in recent months because of turmoil and anti-Western sentiment. Faced with the certainty of opposition by Iranian workers, however, company officials have said they want to pay the expatriates reduced salaries. Western diplomatic sources said this was unrealistic.
"It's a politically sensitive issue, but one the government is going to have to deal with," one said. "Nobody is going to come out here unless he's paid a lot of money, and maybe not even then."
Until death threats and two assassinations prompted an expatriate exodus from the southern oilfields late last year, Iran employed about 1,600 foreign oilmen, including 550 with the Oil Services Co. of Iran -- the operations arm of the Western consortium. An Iranian company source said 120 oil services employes would be asked to return.
The national radio reported tonight that one American, two Britons and a Belgian employed at Iran's largest oil- field have been arrested on charges of "plundering the wealth of Iran" and taken to the nearby city of Ahwaz. A spokesman for their employer, the Iranian subsidiary of the Californiabased Fluor Corp., identified the American as John Cassiba. No further identification was available.
Two other Britons who had been employed on a defense contract in the wouthwestern oilfield region are being held in a Tehran prison on charges of "misappropriating national funds," British sources said.
Iranian company sources said the new government will hold oil production to about 4 million barrels a day, with exports limited to about 3 million barrels a day. But they conceded it would take most of March to get exports above a million barrels a day for "technical reasons."
Iran's production capacity before the work stoppages was about 6.5 million barrels a day, making it the world's second leading exporter of crude after Saudi Arabia.
Only about 700,000 barrels a day are now being produced -- barely enough to meet domestic consumption -- and crude exports have been stopped entirely since late December. Since then Iran's only exports have been about 100,000 barrels a day of heavy fuel oil produced by the Abadan refinery as a by-product in making much-needed middle and light distillates, industry sources said.
Iranian oil workers insist they can raise production and handle exports without foreign help, but Western industry and diplomatic sources disagree.
"Without the expatriates production capacity is going to decline over time," one source said. He cited Iranian oil workers' lack of expertise in design and construction of new oilfield facilities, exploration and drilling of new wells, maintenance of sophisticated oilfield equipment and secondary recovery techniques such as gas injection to maintain oil reservoir pressure.
Iran probably could not produce much more than 4 million barrels a day without the foreigners, sources said. But even at that rate, they said, it is doubtful that export targets could be attained without going through the British, French, Dutch and American oil consortium led by British Petroleum. Iran cannot match the oil marketing capabilities of the Western majors, the sources said.
Under a 1973 agreement with Iran, the consortium companies are entitled to buy Iranian oil at a discount in return for operating the oilfields. The agreement soon became obsolete, and negotiations on a new one were abandoned last spring after two years of off-and-on haggling.