The Hague — There were a dozen of them in pin-stripesuits holding numbers. Once every hour, all day long, they would watch a tall wooden door swing open and a Dutch secretary emerge. She would call a number, and the lucky holder, carrying documents, would enter.
While the procedure was boring, the result of this ritual is considerable: billions of dollars to the winner in a dispute between the United States and Iran.
On Oct. 20, lawyers representing nearly 3,000 American companies and individuals began filing claims at the Peace Palace in The Hague against the Iranian government for losses suffered since the fall of the Shah, a process that will last until Jan. 19, the filing deadline.
''It may not be the largest but it is certainly the most significant international claims case in legal history,'' Arthur Rovine, an American representative, said.
Over the next few years, an international tribunal - made up of three Americans, three Iranians, and three neutrals - will arbitrate the American claims, and if all goes according to plan, Iran will be forced to pay up from $3 -to-4 billion in total compensation.
There are large American companies like Xerox, which reckons the Iranian government owes it $84 million for nationalizing Rank Xerox Iran. And Sedco, which wants $175 million for the loss of 16 drilling rigs and assorted construction equipment. General Telephone and Electronics is claiming more than
But there are also wealthy individuals. One lawyer from Miami said he was representing a dual US-Iranian national who wants $525 million from the Iranians for property lost to the Islamic Revolution.
No one knows exactly how many American firms and citizens will file claims against the Iranian government between now and Jan. 19.
But Mr. Rovine says the number could reach about 3,000, with about 2,200 of them seeking ''small'' sums (less than $250,000).
The Hague, however, is not the only avenue, although it may be the best one being pursued by the Americans to recover their losses. American lawyers have been trying for months, only rarely succeeding, to meet Iranian representatives on neutral ground (usually Vienna) to arrange out-of-court settlements. ''But so far,'' says one lawyer, who has had several such meetings canceled, ''the path has led nowhere.''
There are few illusions, moreover, that recovering all or part of the losses through the international tribunal in The Hague will be easy.
First, there is the tribunal itself, which in its exclusive wisdom could decide to award the American claimants nothing.
There is also the question of exchange rates. The Iranians have insisted on using the current dollar-rial rate, even though the rial has been devalued by about 20 percent since the days of the Shah. On a claim of, say, $20 million, that would mean a loss to the American claimant of about $4 million. The Americans are also seeking interest on unpaid invoices. But the Iranians have refused to discuss the question because paying interest is against Islamic law.
In the long run, the main problem may be the Iranian government's simple unwillingness or inability to hand over the money. The US transferred about $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets to a Dutch bank last August - all of it to be used in paying compensation won by Americans - as part of the hostage-exchange agreement worked out by the Carter administration last January. But if the total amount in US claims filed and won reaches the expected level of $4 billion, Iran will have to come up with $2 billion in a hurry. ''I doubt that they will,'' one American lawyer said.
Meanwhile, the trek to The Hague has begun. ''We'll be giving it the old college try,'' one lawyer said. Another lawyer had to hire a student to help him carry 700 pounds of documents through the tall wooden door when his number was called.
''I'm representing two clients - one is claiming about $10 million; the other about $20 million - and for that amount of money, I'd carry 700 tons of documents if I had to.''