Iran's economy: tenacious but tenuous after revolution

The Iranian economy has survived four years of revolution.

There are shortages, inflation is raging, unemployment is rising. But so far there has been no famine. Except for companies importing luxury articles from the West, there have been few bankruptcies.

''We have had political instability, an economic war with the United States, a military war with Iraq, but we survive. Isn't it wonderful?'' asks Behzad Nabavi, the minister of heavy industry.

Mohsen Nourbakhsh, governor of Iran's central bank, adds: ''The war (with Iraq) caught us by surprise with most of our financial reserves blocked in the US. In August '81 our situation became difficult, and we had to balance our earnings and our expenditures for every specific period of time. But we didn't sell any gold. We now export 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.''

But the period of revolutionary euphoria is coming to an end. And Iranian leaders recognize that they have not yet achieved a fundamental reform of the economy.

''What we lack now is not money, but good planning,'' Mr. Nabavi says. ''We are working on it.'' The different ministries in charge of the economy are taking a census of Iranian industries.

Aside from the war, which devours 30 percent of Iran's earnings, next year's most crucial budget item will be agriculture. The farming situation, already very shaky under the late Shah, is said to have worsened ever since. The government's aim is to achieve food self-sufficiency within 10 years by helping small farmers.

The next priority is industry. ''We now only have assembly lines, which makes us dependent on foreign companies,'' Mr. Nabavi says. ''We would like to sell cars totally made in Iran.''

One keystone of the Islamic economy is barter trade. The government tries to exchange oil for goods. Such contracts have so far been signed with Syria and Turkey.

Although oil exports are currently less than one-third of what they were in pre-revolutionary Iran, they are said to have doubled in the past year. According to Iranian and Western sources, Iran's main oil terminal on Kharg Island remains largely unaffected by periodic Iraqi air strikes. Western diplomats confirm that the Iranian Air Force is effective in protecting the oil installations.

Meanwhile, the government is divided over whether economic development should be based on state-run or privately run businesses. The present situation is a confused mix of nationalization and privately owned firms.

In 1979 the Islamic Republican Party, which is dominated by clerics, pushed through the nationalization of several big companies owned by foreign groups or by relatives and friends of the Shah. The subsequent disruption of their production strengthened small factories owned by middle-class bazaar merchants. Now, these merchants now their own interests and have their representatives in the government. Minister of Commerce Asgar Oladi, for example, is the brother of the president of the Tehran merchants' guild.

''We are living under the reign of bazaar merchants,'' says a sympathizer of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, the guerrilla movement opposed to the present regime. ''Despite the general slump, bazaar profits were up last year. And as during the (Shah's) imperial regime, they cheat the government tax collectors.''

The strange status of foreign trade is an example of the regime's contradictions. It was nationalized by the Majlis (parliament), but the Council of Guardians vetoed the bill, claiming it was un-Islamic. The council, made up of conservative religious leaders, controls the Majlis.

But Iran's Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, urged the government to go ahead with nationalization. Twelve state purchase centers were organized, although the laws don't prevent the Ministry of Commerce from giving import licenses to private bazaar merchants. This very confused situation is echoed in agriculture, where the long-awaited land reform is deadlocked.

Western observers in Tehran don't see any dramatic change in the structure of the Iranian economy in the coming years. Diplomats say the government will spend most of its money rebuilding the country - an urgent need in this war-torn country.

Abadan, Khorramshahr, and Qasr-e Shirin are entirely destroyed. The western part of oil-rich Khuzestan Province is devastated. The economy will also carry the burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees who left their war-torn cities to go to Shiraz and Isfahan. The reduced refining capacity of the country is likely to ensure shortages of gasoline and heating oil for several years.

The government is quickly building a huge network of natural gas pipelines. Workers can be seen everywhere in Tehran connecting as many houses as possible to the new network. The government has also encountered some success in small programs such as the electrification of remote villages and the installation of telephone booths in rural areas.

But the survival of the economy depends on a return to political stability. This is why the government is waging a merciless war against terrorism. But many employees and workers believe that religious zealots are perpetuating economic instability.

''After the revolution, they expelled those with links to the (Shah's) imperial regime,'' says a woman working with Iran Air. ''Then they got rid of the liberals. Now they are laying off Bahais. In my office we have had a dozen chiefs since the revolution. Last week they wanted to promote me, but I refused because I don't trust the new management of the company.''

Observers in Tehran agree that the next months will be crucial. The clergy has successfully met several challenges, but the worsening economic slump it now faces is arousing popular discontent. If the revolution doesn't find its own stability, it could sink in an endless power struggle.

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