'We have no moral obligation to Israel'

Austrian oil company OMV fields hard questions from shareholders over April 2007 gas deal with Iran.

iran gas deal 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
iran gas deal 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
The directors of OMV, the largest oil and gas company in Central Europe, were asked uncomfortable questions on Wednesday about the moral and financial propriety of the €22 billion deal OMV signed in April 2007 to produce liquefied natural gas from Iran's South Pars gas field. Protesters from Vienna's Stop the Bomb organization distributed flyers at the start of OMV's annual stockholder meeting here on Wednesday, outlining Teheran's military threat to Israel and its persecution of minority groups in Iran. Was the company's investment in Iran a "miscalculation" because of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and the sanctions imposed for violating United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the regime to halt enrichment of uranium, asked Dr. Hava Bugajer, an OMV shareholder and president of the Women's International Zionist Organization in Austria. "The details are to be negotiated" and there is "no foreseeable result" regarding the implementation of the deal, replied CEO Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer to a packed auditorium at the Austrian Center Vienna. OMV sees time as an ally and is waiting for "political change in the USA," Ruttenstorfer said in response to questions about sanctions against Iran at the stockholder meeting. He declined to comment on whether OMV's gas deal would violate the US Iran Sanctions Act, which prohibits large energy investments in Iran and spells out penalties for conducting more than $20 million of annual business in Iran's energy sector. OMV spokesman Thomas Huemer told the The Jerusalem Post that "OMV as a company does not have a moral responsibility toward a particular state." Bugajer told thePost that Ruttenstorfer' responses were "not really answers." Simone Dinah Hartmann, a spokeswoman for Stop the Bomb, asked Ruttenstorfer about the involvement of Khatam-ol-Anbia, a subsidiary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, in the OMV gas project. The US government has designated the 125,000 members of the Corps as "global terrorists." Ruttenstorfer declined to answer the question A financial partnership with a company funded by the Revolutionary Guards could have grave consequences for OMV. The Bush administration's Executive Order 13224 authorizes the US to clamp down on the financial operations of a foreign business. In an e-mail to the Post, a US Embassy spokeswoman in Vienna wrote, "Now is not a time for business as usual with Iran." Shortly following the OMV Board's euphoric presentation of its "corporate social responsibility" record, Hartmann asked Ruttenstorfer whether it conformed to OMV's ethical code to conduct business with a country that "has executed more adolescents than any other state." "We reject the execution of adolescents, whether in the USA, China or Iran," said Ruttenstorfer, adding, "We cannot change governments." Critics in the US and Europe say OMV is in a unique position to influence foreign governments because its principal shareholder (31.5%) is the Austrian state. The office of Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer did not return telephone calls from the Post seeking a comment. According to Israeli Embassy spokesman Guy Feldman, both the Austrian government and OMV "know that the State of Israel is against this deal." It was important to "raise discussions among shareholder concerns" regarding Iran, Feldman said. However, Hartmann's human rights questions hit many raw nerves among the overwhelming majority of the Austrian stockholders, who booed and hissed her, seeking an end to her tough queries. The chairman of OMV's board, Rainer Wieltsch, agreed, saying "no presentations" were permitted and pulling the plug on her remaining questions. "As a gay European, the exportation of the Islamic regime is a dreadful notion," said Stefan Schaden, a member of Stop the Bomb who spent 14 months at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as part of his Austrian community service. Standing in front of the convention center in Vienna, he said the mullah regime was a danger for "the populations of Israel, Iran and Europe." Austria's historic responsibility to the Jewish state was a concern for many of the protesters outside the stockholders meeting. Asked about Austria's responsibility toward Israel in light of the Shoah, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told the Post that the "special relationship concerns our engagement as a positive force in dialogue in the Middle East and cannot boil down to one question, OMV or Iran." However, former US ambassador to Austria and current World Jewish Congress head Ronald Lauder said on Monday, "Because of its recent history, Austria has a moral responsibility to fight the Iranian threat." "OMV's shareholders will meet for the annual General Meeting in Vienna on May 14, 60 years to the day after the independence of Israel, a county that Iran's President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad wants to wipe off the map. Let's hope that OMV decides to pursue alternative options instead of giving Iran the international recognition they so desperately seek," Lauder added.