On Tuesday morning of this week, the headquarters of General Tire Co. in Akron, Ohio, received a routine telex message from Tehran requesting assistance in solving a minor problem at an Iranian tire manufacturing plant.
The request from the plant, in which the U.S. company has a minor interest, was an example of the schizophrenia of Iran as it attempts to continue operating a modern economy in the midst of revolutionary, anti-American fervor.
As Iran industrialized under the shah in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. multinational companies became the backbone of the Iranian-American relationship and the conduit for transfer of technology and equipment.
With the anti-American events of the last few weeks, the U.S. coporate presence is rapidly disappearing. But the need for tires and the other essentials of a modern economy has presented Iran's rulers with a choice between their desire to erase all traces of U.S. influence and the possibility of costly economic disruptions if they do so.
For their part, corporate executives whose firms are still doing some business in Iran are also in a dilemma.
General Tire decided to answer the questions from the Tehran plant but has placed "on hold" all requests for credit or spare parts, said Vice President Roy Megargel.
"We're really struggling with this," he said.
The latest developments of U.S. business in Iran provide an extreme example of the tensions that exist between multinationals and the increasingly assertive governments of developing countries all over the world. And they also show the problems that emerge for a nation that attempts to cut the cords of economic interdependency quickly.
A year ago there were 440 U.S. companies doing business in Iran, with investments totaling $560 million in book value -- a computation that understates by at least a third the actual value of plant and equipment. Many of the 70,000 Americans in the country were with companies.
Today, most U.S. business is close to a standstill and only a few hundred Americans are left. This week, the California based Fluor Corp., an engineering firm that was finishing up a major oil refinery near Isfahan, withdrew its 52 workers "to protect them from an unpredictable political climate," according to a spokesman.
After the revolution, U.S. exports to Iran dropped sharply, to an annual rate of $850 million a year from the previous level of more than $2 billion.
However, officials at Fluor and other companies say they received signs of interest in continuing business relationships subsequent to the ouster of the shah.
Fluor was invited back to finish building the refinery for the National Iranian Oil Co. Officials at General say they were "well received" on a visit to Tehran a few weeks ago, at which time there were discussions of increasing the capacity of the Tehran tire plant. General withdrew all American personnel earlier this year and has left the plant in the charge of Iranians.
One adviser to U.S. businesses said that until a few weeks ago, old-line moderate bureaucrats in the Iranian government were trying to maintain a relationship but that these elements apparently are losing out in the current power struggle.
An executive at John Deere in Moline, Ill., said yesterday that there has been a marked change of tone in messages coming from the company's combine and tractor plant in Arak in the last few days.
After the revolution, the plant in Arak was taken over by a workers' committee, but the government partners in the operation indicated "continued interest" in technical cooperation.
However, in the last few days, messages from the plant have become "demanding," said Deere Vice President David Stowe. The Iranians have called for parts and components, and advisers to get the plant operating again. c
"It's changed from business wording to a tone of 'or else,'" said Stowe.
Iran, with its oil revenues, has the money to import many of the products and equipment needed to keep its economy functioning. It may also be able to get much of the technical help it needs from companies in Japan and Western Europe, which are more dependent on Iranian oil than the United States is.
"Money can buy thngs," said an adviser to U.S. companies in Iran. "But you need people, infrastructure and government to run an economy."
U.S. corporations were active in almost every sector of the Iranian economy, not just petroleum, before the ouster of the shah. Bank of America, Chase International Investment Corp., and Hawaiian Agronomics Co. were involved in the vast Dez irrigation project that envisioned a mechanized farming operation on 250,000 acres in the province of Khuzistan.
U.S. companies also supplied the most advanced petroleum technology from drilling equipment to mud pumps. An Iran had been counting on U.S. companies to provide the most technologically advanced high capacity eqiupment for mining copper, iron, coal, lead, and chromite.