Democracy Dies in Darkness


France's Total bets big on Iran's gas fields. American rivals are left watching from afar.

July 3, 2017 at 11:20 AM

A view of the South Pars gas field in Kangan, Iran, in January 2014. (Abedin Taherkenareh/European Pressphoto Agency)

France wasted no time in rebuilding its economic ties with Iran since international sanctions were lifted as part of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.

In early 2016 — just after the sanctions began to roll back — France made deals with Iran to sell Airbus commercial jets, return carmaker Peugeot and have energy giant Total buy Iranian crude oil.

Another big bet by France was made Monday as Total signed a multibillion-dollar deal to help develop part of the massive South Pars gas field, one of the world's most extensive energy reserves. The pact with the National Iranian Oil Co. marks the first major Western investment in Iran since the nuclear deal was reached in 2015.

An even bigger message sent by the deal is that France and the United States are blazing different paths when it comes to Iran's vast oil and gas fields.

French leaders and business envoys spent months hammering out the Total deal. In Washington, President Trump has not missed any opportunity to take potshots at the nuclear deal as part of his attacks on all things Obama.

It has left U.S. oil companies waiting on the sidelines for clues on whether they could one day get official clearance to make a foray into the Iranian market. A push in Congress for new sanctions on Iran — in response to Tehran's ballistic missile tests — suggests that it could be a long time before U.S. oil companies can look in Iran's direction.

Related: [Iran hit hard as U.S. travel ban takes effect]

For the moment, Boeing has been the U.S. trailblazer. It is desperate not to fall behind France-based Airbus to fill orders in aircraft-hungry Iran. Last year, Boeing signed a deal with state carrier Iran Air for about 100 Boeing aircraft. And in April, it struck a tentative $3 billion accord to sell 30 737 MAX aircraft to Aseman Airlines, which is owned by Iran's civil service pension foundation.

The Trump administration, however, has kept everyone guessing on whether it could put roadblocks before the Boeing plans. Clearly, ceding the Iranian air market to Airbus would run counter to Trump's "America First" bluster. But some Republican lawmakers and lobbyists have objected to Boeing's deals, claiming that commercial aircraft could be used by Iran to ferry aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump's newfound coziness with Saudi Arabia — Iran's chief foe in the region — also could work against U.S. business interests.

Trump planned Monday to talk with French officials by phone ahead of a summit later this week involving the world's leading economies, called the Group of 20.

The agenda for the talks was not made public in advance. But it will take place just hours after the Iran deal was celebrated by Total's chief, who was a corporate rival of Rex Tillerson during his tenure at the helm of ExxonMobil before he became secretary of state.

"This is a major agreement for Total, which officially marks our return to Iran to open a new page in the history of our partnership with the country," the company's chairman and chief executive officer, Patrick Pouyanné, said in a statement.

The first phase of the South Pars gas field development is estimated to cost about $2 billion, Total said. Natural gas is expected to be sold to Iranian consumers by 2021.

Iran's oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, said the deal will bring "more than $5 billion in foreign investments."

Brian Murphy joined The Washington Post after more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. Murphy has reported from more than 50 countries and has written four books.

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