The political violence that has turned Khuzestan Province into a revolutionary battleground has made Iran's major oil facilities tempting targets for saboteurs.
Despite three successful sabotage attempts on pipelines in this region during the past two weeks, only skeleton security forces guard the facilities, which include the world's largest oil refinery at Abadan.
The few Iranian troops in the area are stretched thin, guarding the hostile Iraqi border nearby and attempting to keep rebellious Iranian Arabs under control.
Iran's naval chief, Rear Adm. Ahmad Madani, who is also governor of Khuzestan, said in an interview with the official Iranian radio yesterday that the problems in Khuzestan have left him with little time for running the Navy.
In the harshest crackdown so far against the mounting sabotage at the oil facilities, two men identified only as "counterrevolutionaries" were executed yesterday for placing bombs that blew up a section of the major pipeline serving the Abadan refinery two weeks ago.
Baking under the relentless summer sun, with temperatures hovering between 125 and 130 degrees in the shade, the world's largest oil refinery looks strangely vulnerable.
Surrounded by a filmsy corrugated steel fence, the sprawling refinery sits incongruously in the center of this city of 400,000 persons, more than half of them ethnic Arabs whose separatist feelings and resentment against the revolutionary provisional government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini grows daily.
Visible just 400 yards across the Shatt Arab River is the shoreline of historically hostile Iraq, source of many of the weapons being smuggled into Iran almost nightly.
A bomb tossed over the fence, or a single well-aimed mortar round presumably could touch off the massive oil storage tanks.
Yet the watchtowers that dot strategic corners of the zigzag fence are empty. At the main gate, three National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC) guards stop an entering vehicle and give three Western newsmen and their escort a cursory examination, appearing more concerned with adherence to the no smoking regulations than the possibility of sabotage.
The towering distilleries and heating devices that hiss around the clock to provide the world with 600,000 barrels of refined oil products a day run almost by themselves. Trying to find an armed guard inside the rambling complex proved fruitless. Similarly, the neat rows of pipeline that snake out of the oil fields near Ahwaz, 80 miles north of here, and wind southwest across the desert toward the Persian Gulf look uncomfortably exposed.
In one recent attack on the oil facilities, saboteurs simply fired a rifle into a pipe, causing a fire and explosion that disrupted operations at the refinery. At one point, production at the NIOC refinery reportedly was down to 60,000 barrels a day.
Officials at NIOC and Khuzestan Province headquarters in Ahwaz insist that, despite the apparent lack of security, the refinery, the pipelines and the oil wells are adequately protected, even with the political turmoil, terrorist attacks in the region and gun battles between Arab militants and the Pasdaran , Khomeini's revolutionary guards.
Conceding that "a small explision could turn this place into powder and one small bullet could make a terrible explosions," an NIOC official said the revolutionary guards patrol at night, when the danger of sabotage is greatest.
"We are guarged. There are jeeps and patrols and airplanes. There is the army and the Pasdaran , this officials said, dismissing the absence of visible security during the day.
In Ahwaz, Adm. Madani said, "In the daytime, I advised them [NIOC] to keep an eye on the refinery and pipelines." He acknowledged that "we have to do something" about daytime security, but added: "When you pas by, you will feel they [pipelines and refinery] are unguarged. But here and there, there are eyes. They are safe."
Madani said there are bout 500 available troops in the vital Abadan-Khorramshahr area, including about 200 regular army troops. But he said he was reluctant to use the army to protect the oil facilities and patrol Arab areas, saving it instead for border security and when clashes with Arabs get out of hand.
"I expecte more trouble in Khuzestan, but I'm ready for the challenge," he said. He insisted that the saboteurs and terrorists "are not motivated by ideology. Most of them receive money from foreign agents, both from the East and the West, who want to disrupt the revolution."
Madani said he had evidence that $140 million has been funneled by the disposed shah and his family through Iraq to "Savaki provocateurs here" operating under the guise of Arab separatists. He also suggested that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is encouraging former members of the shah's secret security force, Savak, to overthrow Khomeini.
But Madani predicted that stability will return to the province, and the world's oil supply would be assured.
Asked about threats by the Palestine Liberation Organization to sabotage tankers in the Hormuz Straits and choke off the flow of oil, from the Persian Gulf. Madani dismissed the notion as unlikely. He said Iran's navy patrols the mouth of the straits, "but not very actively. It's not necessary.
"They [the Palestinians] wouldn't benefit from such a mad and senseless thing. They would have all the Arab countries against them and lose friends all over the world. They would become completely isolated. I don't think this gateway is threatened," Madani said.
Madani said he believed that, apart from foreign agents' provocateurs, dissension in Khuzestan is economically motivated, rather than political.
He said he opposes giving the province's 2 million ethnic Arabs autonomy now, or making Arabic the first language in Arab-dominated cities and villages in place of Farsi, the Persian language.
"Farsi is the language of the nation," Madani said. "If they want to be taught Arabic also, it's okay. But they must know Persian."
He said he also opposes Arab demands for less control from the central government in Tehran and Qom, and thinks the answer to local unrest will be found in more economic and agricultural development for Khuzestan.
Madani said the revolutionary government has spent already $100 million for economic development in the province and plans more irrigaton, transportation and agricultural programs for its Arab areas. CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Dave Cook - The Washington Post