Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné considers measures to protect European business in Iran

Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: In a major interview given to French newspaper Le Monde looking at Total’s strong performance in 2017, CEO Patrick Pouyanné was asked about the “American threat” to the company’s “important gas project” in Iran. Pouyanné’s forthright response marks perhaps the first time that a major European executive has publicly called for a diplomatic intervention to protect commercial interests in Iran.

Total’s CEO explained that the South Pars project was “progressing well, without delay, and [Total] continues to work, even if the situation with the American Congress is rather vague.” He noted that even if the Americans “decide to exit the nuclear agreement and if secondary sanctions return in place,” it would pose a “real question” for the French energy giant.

However, echoing comments made to reporters on the sidelines of Davos, Pouyanné did not cast snapback as an automatic game-over for the South Pars project. Rather, he suggested that it was necessary to “clarify the horizon for European business working in Iran.”

He explains that Total has been in discussions with French and European authorities about “means to protect investments already made in Iran, even in the case of the return of sanctions.” Pouyanné points to the experience of European blocking statutes and sanctions waivers applied in the 1990s which proved sufficient to to protect Total’s gas projects at the time. Pouyanné concludes by noting that it is “up to European diplomats to consider these questions.”

The confidence of Pouyanné’s response stands in stark comparison to the general uncertainty that has gripped the business community and will be seen as an important signal. The landmark USD 3.8 billion South Pars project is seen as a bellwether for the larger project of Iran’s post-sanctions economic recovery.

However, Total is far from the only major European multinational engaged in the Iranian market. Pouyanne was one of select group of European CEOs invited to dine with Donald Trump at a special dinner held during the American President’s trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Other guests included Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser, ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer and Volvo CEO Martin Lundstedt. Overall, nine of the fifteen companies represented at the dinner are currently active in Iran, and a further five have had a historical presence in the market. Pouyanné’s peers are likely to share his sentiments on the need to protect European interests in Iran and the wider global economy.

While the legal value of blocking statutes or sanctions waivers is questionable given the greater interconnectivity in global markets and greater reticence of the banking sector to engage Iran when compared to the 1990s, the political message behind such measures could be valuable, enabling companies to seek creative solutions to structure their Iran engagements in a way that avoids sanctions exposure.

In a recent survey conducted by Bourse & Bazaar and commissioned by International Crisis Group, a substantial 54 percent of senior executives indicated that “assuming Iran remains committed to the nuclear deal,” blocking statutes, which would protect companies from U.S. penalties, would positively affect the “decision to invest in Iran.”