Total SA to pull out of Iran amid showdown over U.S. sanctions

Total SA, the first major oil and gas company to sign a deal with Tehran after the latter’s nuclear agreement with world powers took effect in 2016, “will not be in a position to continue” its work in Iran in light of US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord, the firm said on Wednesday.

The French oil giant relies heavily on US financial institutions, with more than 90% of its transactions handled by American banks. Trump’s May 8 announcement that he would snap back all sanctions on Iran that were in place before the nuclear deal means that those banks would no longer be accessible to Total, or to any other foreign companies, should they continue to engage in the Iranian marketplace.

Total’s move is likely to rattle European governments and the European Commission, which warned Trump against acting to punish their businesses operating in Iran under the legitimacy of the nuclear deal they helped broker. France, Britain and Germany are now in negotiations with Iran to try and “salvage” the deal, which Tehran says can only be achieved if its contracts are protected.

Total’s $2 billion deal with Tehran was in partnership with Petrochina, a subsidiary of China’s largest oil and gas company, CNPC. The Chinese have indicated they will take over Total’s stake in the project should it choose to leave.

Total “will have to unwind all related operations before 4 November 2018,” the company said, referring to a deadline set by the US Treasury Department for companies to wind down their operations before sanctions go into effect – “unless Total is granted a specific project waiver by the US authorities with the support of the French and European authorities.”

The Trump administration has already been asked whether Total, one of the seven largest oil companies in the world, will receive such a waiver. National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters he would not discuss specific cases but indicated that no waivers would be forthcoming.

“In the case of oil purchases from Iran,” Bolton said, “if it’s a long-term requirements contract... what we’re saying is that although the sanctions come back into effect immediately, precluding any new contracts, for those affected by our jurisdiction, they’ve got six months to phase it out.”

“That’s why it’s called ‘wind-down,’” he added. “It’s a way to give businesses a chance to get out.” Several other oil and gas companies face similar challenges, including many of the largest players based in Germany, Austria, Norway, Italy, South Korea and India. Officials in China and Russia have indicated they will resist US sanctions and capitalize on the void created if European companies withdraw from the Iranian market.

In its statement, Total said it was requesting a waiver that would protect it from all “secondary” sanctions under US legislation, and that it had engaged US and French authorities to “examine the possibility” of an exemption.

Also known as extraterritorial sanctions, these “secondary sanctions” laws passed during a peak of the nuclear crisis in 2010-13 were meant to force non-US companies to choose between the US and Iranian marketplaces.

“Total has always been clear that it cannot afford to be exposed to any secondary sanction which might include the loss of financing in dollars by US banks for its worldwide operations, the loss of its US shareholders or the inability to continue its US operations,” the company said.