Although its more than 622 years away by their count, Iranians must deal with millennium issues in about 32 days.
Iran's 20-year-old breach with the United States has come back to haunt it in the form of the Y2K computer bug, an obscure legacy of western technological domination. Islamic Iran's unique solar calendar may read year 1378, but it must grapple nonetheless with the feared after-effects of a Western computer short-cut timed to the start of the next Christian millennium.
Most at risk, say Iranian engineers, is the large installed base of aging U.S. technology, largely dating back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Much of it involves so-called embedded systems, monitors and controllers largely hidden from view and long-forgotten.
The lack of ties with Washington and the strict U.S. technology embargo against Iran mean experts here are engaged in a game of hide-and-seek - often without a map.
Most other developing countries face related challenges. Some foreign vendors have gone out of business, abandoned old product lines or are simply unable to meet all requests for help from their customers.
However, technology sanctions imposed by the United States, routinely denounced in Iran as "The Great Satan," have added an extra challenge to Iran's Y2K effort.
"We received a letter from the telecomms ministry that they were looking for some information from Hughes company... to tell them whether they are Y2K-compliant or not," said Mohammad Sepehri-rad, Iran's Y2K coordinator. "But they have not been successful in getting it," he said.
Sepehri-Rad, secretary of the High Council of Informatics, said similar problems have been encountered at Iran's two newest oil refineries, which have U.S.-sourced equipment.
"None of our refineries, except two, has any problem (because) they have no date-related embedded systems. There are the only two such refineries, one in Arak and one in Bandar Abbas."
Nowhere To Turn
Appeals to the U.S. government and firms, passed through the United Nations, have also gone nowhere.
"I got word just a few days ago saying they have still not been successful in getting any help. Even the United Nations cannot get through," Sepehri-Rad said. A spokesman for Hughes Electronics, a unit of General Motors
, said the firm had turned down an upgrade request for Iran, relayed by INTELSAT, the global satellite cooperative. The Y2K fixes were intended for Hughes' VSAT private networks used by Iran's telecommunications authority and its central bank.
"We had to turn them down because that's not permitted under U.S. regulations," said Richard Dore, a spokesman in Los Angeles for Hughes Electronics.
Despite these difficulties, Iranian experts are cautiously optimistic they will manage the changeover to 2000. In fact, they say, the turmoil of the 1979 revolution, the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and general isolation from the outside world has insulated Iran from some of the dangers of Y2K.
Iran suffered from a "technology gap" due to the revolution and the war, said Parviz Naseri, a private Y2K consultant to the Iranian government. Many of the oldest systems are less automated and thus less vulnerable, while the most recent ones are already Y2K-ready, he said.
"Most technology is pre-1979, or very recent. Also, many of the features in industrial process control, reliant on date and time, are not being used here. "In the power ministry we have examples of this. They have the instruments, but they have not used all the fully-automated features."
Iran can also take comfort in the low-tech nature of banking, government services and most industry.
Even the U.S. embargo has had a bright side: forced to rely on their own devices for so long, many state organizations wrote their own programs from scratch, basing them on the Iranian calendar.
Where old IBM mainframes were involved, they have been traded for newer models or third-party solutions. Desktop PCs have been upgraded, or swapped to non-critical uses.
"In our view, only 10 percent of the difficulty lies in IT (Information Technology). It is a problem, it is being treated, and it has been mainly solved," Naseri said.
Iran's main air traffic control system has been certified Y2K compliant by international experts. And foreign military attaches say they are satisfied with the safety of Iran's missiles and other advanced weaponry.
Boeing and AirBus, chief suppliers to Iran Air, have guaranteed their aircraft as ready for the changeover. However, doubts remain about the Russian-built marine fleet. As a precaution, the oil ministry has ordered all liquid fuel tanks at Iran's power plants, which generally run on natural gas, to be filled ahead of Jan. 1. Health workers are concerned that some high-tech medical devices may stumble on Jan. 1, a fear common to many countries. And banks plan to print all customers' balances just ahead of January 1, in case their systems fail.
For his part, Y2K guru Sepehri-Rad is confidant Iran is as prepared as it can be for what is, in the final analysis, a largely unpredictable event.
Still, he says Iran might declare Jan. 1, normally a working day, a one-off holiday. "It has been suggested to the government to make it a holiday," he said. "Just to be on the safe side." - (Jonathan Lyons, Reuters)