U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, one of the Clinton administration’s harshest critics of Conoco’s $1 billion contract with Iran, said Sunday he has cut himself off from all consideration of the deal because his former law firm represents the U.S. oil company.
Christopher said he decided to recuse himself from the controversy because of his conservative position on conflict-ofinterest matters, choosing to avoid even the suggestion of impropriety.
U.S. officials said Christopher learned Thursday night that the Los Angeles firm of O’Melveny & Myers had been retained by Conoco in connection with the project to develop an offshore oil field in the Persian Gulf. The pact, which surfaced last week, is the first deal of its type between a U.S. company and Iran since the United States broke off relations with Iran in 1980.
Christopher, former chairman of O’Melveny & Myers, said he will take no part in administration consideration of possible steps to block the Conoco deal. He will not be briefed or shown memos and other papers on the subject, a senior aide said.
A few hours before he learned of his former firm’s connection, Christopher had denounced the project, which he said could help finance Iran’s support of international terrorism.
“Wherever you look, you find the evil hand of Iran in this region,” Christopher said Thursday in Tel Aviv, Israel.
On Sunday, Christopher told reporters aboard a flight from Israel to the Red Sea port city of Jiddah that despite his silence on the Conoco issue, he would continue to play a role in administration efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically.
Christopher later met in Jiddah with representatives of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, winning unanimous support for U.S. policy toward Iraq.
The administration is determined to thwart efforts by France and Russia to relax U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Christopher met later with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd; the secretary then flew to Damascus, Syria, where he is scheduled to meet today with President Hafez Assad.
When asked if he believes Conoco retained his former firm to silence him, Christopher replied, “Absolutely not.” Nevertheless, the agreement has that effect.
“My colleagues at the State Department feel no less strongly about Iran than I do,” he said. “Those matters will be handled in an appropriate way.”
A senior State Department official said both President Clinton and national security adviser Anthony Lake “are very tough-minded on Iran.”
The Conoco deal appears to be legal under U.S. law because the company has established a Dutch subsidiary to handle the project and because the oil would not be sent to the United States.
But Christopher indicated Thursday that the administration is considering steps that might block the project as a violation of Washington’s policy of containment of Iran.
Although some U.S. officials have known for months that Iran and Conoco were negotiating, details had been sketchy, a senior official said. The company provided the first comprehensive briefing on the deal to State Department officials Thursday. The official said the first the State Department knew of O’Melveny & Myers’ involvement was when a lawyer from the firm attended those meetings.
Christopher said he severed his active connections with the firm when he joined the Cabinet. But he retained a “retirement interest” that could be affected by the firm’s Conoco relationship.