OPEC’s ultimate fighter: Iran’s man battled bombs and sanctions

Bloomberg | Grant Smith and Golnar Motevalli: He survived a bombing that left him badly wounded, shrugged off accusations of arms smuggling, and defended Iran’s oil interests through war and sanctions. Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, who died on Saturday, was one of the ultimate OPEC negotiators.

Kazempour — steely, charming, and combative — was Iran’s envoy to the OPEC oil cartel almost uninterruptedly from 1985. He was a constant in international energy circles even as administrations in Tehran came and went, serving under both reformist President Mohammad Khatami and hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in oil affairs, Iran played a weak hand well.
“Don’t forget that from when oil was $6 dollars a barrel to when it was $126, I defended Iran’s national interest,” he said in an interview with state-run Hamshahri newspaper in 2008. “If Iran has had success in the international energy sector, I have been one of the main agents of this success.”

He was never the country’s oil minister, and was a diplomat rather than petroleum specialist by background. He studied in the U.S. before the Iranian Revolution and delivered pizzas to support himself. Some at home considered him too close to the West.

Kazempour, who died at 68 after a brain hemorrhage, was a stubborn negotiator. At one OPEC meeting in Vienna in 2018, the debate grew heated as Saudi Arabia suggested that Tehran’s recent production increases meant it should now join the group in making cuts. Kazempour’s arm went up, in a typically courteous but unyielding gesture, to interject: if anyone had flooded the market, it was Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia. Iran remained inflexible and prevailed.

The now famous meeting in March this year that unleashed a vicious price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia was one he missed. Heart problems meant he was too vulnerable to risk catching the coronavirus, and he stayed home.

Just over a year before, he had made his mark at a mid-winter meeting in Vienna: Iran’s position almost derailed the agreement before a last-minute deal.

In March 2000, he had gone further. Kazempour was left to represent Iran at a meeting after Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh departed early in protest at U.S. pressure on the cartel to raise production. He refused to sign the eventual decision, and the unanimous statement normally issued at the end of each meeting was scuppered. He grinned in satisfaction.
Bomb Attack

The steel he brought to the role was forged by years of hard experiences.

In 1981, while serving in the Commerce Ministry, he was caught in a bomb attack on the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party. According to his account to an acquaintance, he went to Switzerland for treatment and had to learn to walk again. Another person who knew him said he had hearing loss. He rarely spoke of it.

When sanctions were re-imposed on Iran’s crude exports in the last decade, Kazempour would recount how — during an earlier period of international isolation amid the war with Iraq in the 1980s — he had sold oil to India for as little as $10 a barrel. At the same time he had pleaded with western capitals for arms that would help level the playing field in the fight against Saddam Hussein, to no avail.

The connection with arms procurement would one day cause controversy. In 2000, Japanese police accused Kazempour of seeking to import illegal weapons into Iran during his tenure as ambassador to Japan in the 1990s. He was shielded from the charges because of diplomatic immunity, according to the Japan Times. Whenever the subject was broached by journalists, he would shrug it off with amused indifference.

A sturdy man who wore dark striped blazers or tweed jackets, his shirts open at the neck, Kazempour courted journalists, and charmed and infuriated them in equal measure. His deep voice could turn gruff and hectoring and he spoke in long argumentative sentences.

“With a poker face and a twinkle in his eye, he could also, in a disarming way, excel in the art of bureaucratic mischief, deliberately provoking some, while amusing himself and some others,” said Arne Walther, former secretary general of the International Energy Forum.

In the oil-price war of the late 1990s, he played an important role behind the scenes to secure a deal with Saudi Arabia to cut production.

More recently, he used his playful diplomacy on President Donald Trump. It was 2018 and Trump had re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Kazempour taunted the president in media interviews, saying his tweets were having the unintended effect of sending oil prices even higher.

Read more: OPEC+ Dazzles Oil Market With Swift Delivery of New Supply Cuts

The combination of intransigence and wit meant that, as much as he sparred over the years with rivals from Saudi Arabia, there was still a sense of camaraderie in their relations.

At one OPEC conference in the lavish surroundings of Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, Kazempour and his opposing number from the kingdom — a veteran of comparable experience — posed together arm in arm for a photograph, united by the years of competition.
— With assistance by Julian Lee, and Javier Blas