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Iranians struggle under Khomeini's economy

For Iranians today, life under Ayatollah Khomeini means standing for hours in shivering queues for things like butter, milk, meat, eggs, or chicken -- and not knowing whether halfway down the line there will be anything left in the shop.

One woman, reached by telephone in Tehran from this correspondent's listening post here, comments:

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''They give us coupons to buy food, but that doesn't mean that the things we want are going to be in the shops. I don't ever get to see eggs anymore, and we eat meat about once in 10 days -- at 95 tomans a kilo ($12 for 2.2 pounds).''

The woman may have been fortunate to get her meat at that price. Another source said it was selling for as much as $25 a kilo -- ''when you can get it at all.''

The government has decided to allow 800 grams of red meat per person each week and one chicken per family once every 10 days. But the butchers' and poultry shops make a mockery of the elaborate rationing system drawn up by the regime.

Meanwhile, Iran has been facing a problem that ordinary Iranians shivering in queues on the streets may not be familiar with: a lack of foreign exchange.

Until Khomeini came back to Iran three years ago, Iran did not know what a foreign exchange shortage meant. The Shah sold 6 million barrels of oil a day and had comfortable reserves of gold and foreign exchange in Western banks.

Iran now can barely produce 1 million barrels of oil a day, because of the war with Iraq and other problems. The level of oil sales at the end of last year was reported at 600,000 barrels a day.

Oil Minister Muhammad Gharazi admitted in a radio interview recently that Iran had lost all its traditional oil markets and was making every effort to recover them or find new ones.

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This inability to sell its traditional foreign exchange earner has added to Iran's acute exchange shortage.

Much of what Tehran has left is being spent on purchasing arms and spare parts at astronomical prices in fifth- or sixth-party deals on the international black market. Little remains to buy food and other essentials for the ordinary Iranian.

The foreign exchange crisis is so acute that the mullahs ruling the country recently had to sell 50 tons of Iran's gold reserves. Sources in Tehran said this was done in two lots, one about five months ago, the other just a few weeks back. Both sales were made in Switzerland -- at a time, unfortunately, when the gold market has been sagging.

Mujahideen-e Khalq guerrilla chief Massoud Rajavi in Paris, who has sources in some surprising places inside Iran even today, told this correspondent in a recent interview that the mullahs had now taken to printing paper money without sufficient gold backing.

''Currency worth 160 billion rials ($2 billion) has been put into circulation without backing,'' he claimed. ''This report reached our center from within the Central Bank of Iran.''

As of last Nov. 10, he said, the entire utilizable foreign exchange available to Iran was $1.2 billion. The mullahs had to resort to tighter controls of exchange and the state's gold holdings. It is now illegal to buy gold worth even one rial inside Iran, and it is an even greater crime to take gold out of the country without authorization.

The Khomeini regime, Rajavi said, is keeping the economy going with whatever oil it can sell in the foreign markets.

But the exchange crisis appears to be far away from Iranians trying to cope with the winter shortages.

For a fortunate few, new gas pipelines have been laid down, mainly in Tehran. Those who have been able to pay for the pipes have not had to shiver this winter. For others it has meant cold queues all day for food, and cold homes at night.

''Life,'' said the woman in Tehran, ''is getting worse every day.''

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