The Iranian subsidiary of Akron's General Tire Co. began turning out tires again last week after a long shutdown, but company officials say "the future is clouded."
Like other U.S. multinationals, General has been deeply affected by the unrest surrounding the Iranian revolution. Its difficulties explain why this Midwestern city has become a collection point for political and economic intelligence from at least 50 countries with which four Akron tire multinationals do business.
One of General's problems is that most of the private businessmen who own 31 per cent of the Iranian subsidiary's stock have fled the country. These stockholders and the Akron parent company together own a controlling 51 percent interest in the subsidiary, and the government owns the rest.
"There is no indication that the government wants to expropriate," said vice president Roy Megargel.
The plant outside Tehran was producing 3,000 tires a day before it was closed down earlier this year because of strikes in the ports that cut off raw materials. The five foreign businessmen who helped manage the plant were withdrawn more than a month ago, and the plant is now being run by the Iranian assistant manager.
Megargel said telephone and telex communications with the plant have resumed, but added that it would be "hard" for the plant to reach capacity production without outside help.
The subsidiary has been caught up in the swirl of religious and political ferment that overthrew the shah.
General's principal Iranian partners are members of the Sabet family, wealthy industrialists of the non-Moslem Bahai sect that formerly received the protection of the shah. The Sabets also were involved in oik, soft drinks and steel cable industries.
As complaints about "conspicuous wealth" mounted in Iran in the latter part of the shah,s rule, the Bahais often were targets. Hormoz Sabet left Iran and took up residence in New York City, while his father moved to Paris.
Megargel said the plant's operations were not affected in the early stages of the unrest and the subsidiary made a profit last year. The local board chairman, an Iranian attorney, is a Shiite Moslem, a fact that may have afforded General's plant some protection from demonstrators.
"This has been a stunning blow to the Sabets," said Megargel. "To work for years building an industrial base and then see it go down the drain is not easy."
Keeping up with changes in the political climate in distant countries has become part of the day's work at the headquarters of the four Akron tire multinationals -- General, Goodyear, Goodrich and Firestone.
Megargel says that, in the case of Iran, General Tire failed, along with U.S. intelligence agewncies, to grasp the depth of anti-shah sentiment.
"We were talking with the business community," he said. "The opposition was buried so deep you couldn't see it."
This is not always the case.
The companies' monthly reports from their "embassies," or overseas affiliates, often contain short evaluations of the political situation because of its impact on foreign investors.
"There are times when we probably are ahead of the American Embassy," says vice president Thomas E. Wightman of Goodyear International.
The Angolan civil war for example, interrupted General's technical assistance to a tire plant operated by a Portugese company. But when the war ended General was able to resume the technical aid to the then nationalized plant.
The Akron firms all have been closely watching South African developments. Goodyear halted all technical aid to its own subsidiary there in 1977 in compliance with a Commerce Department regulaion prohibiting aid where the resulting product -- in this case tires -- can be used in military or police operations.
Tire companies have some advantages over diplomats in keeping up with far off developments. Mahy of the foreign plants are located in outposts such as Bougor, Indonesia, or Bonsaso, Ghana. They maintain networks of distribution and franchised dealers in out-of-the way places.
Because tire plants supply armies and key government agencies such as state-oened bus companies they also learn quickly of devolopments affecting parties and the economy.
Finally, Akron is a world capital of sorgs, a Midwestern town that is on the itinerary of foreign businessmen and politicians, as well as a place from which U.S. executives are always flying to lobby at trade talks in Geneva or visit some remote rubber plantation in the African bush.
Akron's global role has slowly begun to show. A new French restaurant has just opened. And one Akron-born tire executive who was introcuced a tew years ago to European living now bemoans the absence of Luxemburg PINOT Gris wine in his old home town.