Tehran, Iran, Jul. 29 – Iran’s judiciary has arrested several executives of a privately-owned oil drilling company over their dealings with the U.S.-based oil giant Halliburton and one of the country’s top nuclear negotiators is facing charges of involvement in an oil scam, a semi-official news agency reported.
Fars News Agency said Mehrdad Safdari, chairman of the Board of Directors of Oriental Oil Kish, and several of his collegues are being interrogated over the company’s trading.
A senior member of Iran’s nuclear negotiations team, Sirus Nasseri, is the vice-chairman of the Board of Directors of the oil company. The news agency said “a well-informed source” close to the investigation sharply criticized Iran’s “security and political agencies” for their “blatant weakness” in preventing Nasseri from dealing with Halliburton.
“The authorities must be particularly vigilant about the extensive economic activities of some of the country’s officials”, he said. The source noted that “Nasseri had access to the country’s most secret information as a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiations team and was at the same time dealing directly with the American company, Halliburton, which used to be run by Dick Cheney”.
Oriental Oil Kish, one of Iran’s largest private oil companies, was set up in 2003 with an initial capital of 10 million tomans. In a few weeks, the company’s capital rose to 200 million dollars and soon jumped to seven billion tomans, a startling 700 percent rise in less than a year.
“The judiciary has been investigating this company for six months and after the collection of sufficient information and completion of inquiries, prosecution has begun”, Fars news agency, which is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reported.
Other senior executives of the oil company facing charges include managing director Mohammad Madani, Chief Executive Officer Ali Matin Nejati, and operations director Ahmad Salari.
The Tehran-based daily Kayhan reported that investigators had discovered one million dollars in cash at the home of one of the detained oil executives. “Powerful figures have been exerting pressure to secure his release, but Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi has insisted that the case be prosecuted”, the daily wrote, adding that it would uncover “a chain of corruption and embezzlement scams”.
Oriental Oil Kish first blipped on the international media’s radar screen in January, when it was announced that the company had subcontracted parts of the South Pars drilling project to Halliburton Products and Services registered in the Cayman Islands.
“Nasseri, a senior Iranian diplomat negotiating with Europe over Iran's controversial nuclear programme is at the heart of deals with US energy companies to develop the country's oil industry”, the Financial Times wrote.
The next day Halliburton announced the South Pars gas field project would be its last in Iran. The BBC reported that Halliburton, which took in $30-$40 million from Iranian operations in 2003, "was winding down its work due to a poor business environment."
But the controversy over a key nuclear negotiator signing up big oil contracts with a U.S. oil giant did not die down in Iran. Hard-line members of Iran’s parliament demanded to question Nasseri over his oil deals and an influential Tehran daily reported that the Ministry of Oil was handing over multi-million-dollar contracts to Oriental Oil Kish while much of the company’s operations exist only on paper.
“This company has won contracts worth more than 500 million dollars from the Oil Ministry in the past three years, while it is not even registered in Iran”, the daily Kayhan wrote in an editorial on January 20, 2005.
Evidence shows that Oriental Oil Kish was set up by entrepreneurs and officials close to ex-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nasseri himself is a long-time protégé of Rafsanjani.
Investigators have pointed out that the company’s operational centre in Dubai is a small office with seven, mostly Indian, employees. Its two offices in Tehran’s Vali-Asr and Africa streets have no signboard and have a staff of about 15 persons. The company’s letterhead has no address and only provides one telephone number.
While there is a strong case for the prosecution of the senior executives of Oriental Oil Kish, Iran analysts see the crackdown on the company as a frontal assault by the ultra-conservative camp on the oil businesses of Rafsanjani and his allies. The new hard-line President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s top election pledge was to “purge the country’s oil industry of Mafia-like influence and corruption”. This was widely seen as a thinly-veiled allusion to election rival Rafsanjani’s involvement in privately-owned oil companies in Iran.
“By targeting the private oil companies run by the Rafsanjani clan, Khamenei is going for the ex-President’s jugular”, said Ahmad Nassehi, a Dubai-based financial analyst. “Rafsanjani has lost much of his political clout in the elections. If his economic power is undermined, too, he’ll be out of the game for good”.
Analysts say the prosecution of Oriental Oil Kish executives will provide an indication as to how far, and how high, the incoming hard-line government is going to pursue the anti-corruption campaign.