Total Confusion in Iran

The proverbial plot thickens with regard to Iran and its relationships to both Western energy companies and the governments of other nations.

First, according to a spokesman for French energy operator Total SA (NYSE: TOT  ) , the company's new CEO Christophe de Margerie is being investigated for alleged corruption in Iran. Reuters has also disclosed that the company's CFO, Robert Castaigne, and the head of its gas and power business, Philippe Boisseau, are similarly being questioned.

de Margerie, who was elevated to the company's top post last month, has also been under investigation by French judges regarding allegations tied to the United Nations' corrupt oil-for-food program in Iraq. In October, he was apparently put under formal investigation by a French judge regarding oil purchases made under the program.

The investigation of possible malfeasance related to Iran is apparently tied to a contract signed in 1997. It was initiated in December, after 95 million Swiss francs (US$78.2 million) were found in the Swiss bank accounts of an intermediary party. de Margerie had headed Total's Middle East operations in the late 90s, before being placed at the helm of its global exploration and production programs.

The investigation tied to Iran occurs as Total is considering participating in a nearly $10 billion project to construct that nation's first natural gas export terminal. At the same time, the U.S. has been pushing its allies not to invest in Iran, as part of an effort to force that nation to cease its nuclear power program.

Indeed, Total might take a lesson from Russia, which is reportedly pulling back its citizens who had been working on building an Iranian nuclear reactor site. If you listen to officials of Iran's regime, the Russians are leaving the nearly-complete site as a result of the U.S.-led drive for U.N. Security Council sanctions against their nation. Russian authorities claim, however, that their departure is tied to poor payment practices on Iran's part. In recent years, Russia has become a progressively more important factor on the world energy scene, and it's currently operating partnerships with the likes of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) , along with oil companies from India and Japan.

But for Fools, it seems to me that the real news here less about Total, or about Russia's increasing energy influence, and more about an energy situation in Iran that appears more chaotic than most people seem to assume. With that nation currently constituting OPEC's second-largest producer, with its own energy demand increasing more rapidly than it would like, and with its apparent financial difficulties, any negative effects on its ability to export crude oil will likely affect the still relatively tight global oil supply-demand balance.

If Fools are lacking energy representation in their portfolios, this seems to me like yet another reason to rectify that absence.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor David Lee Smith does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments. Total is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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