The Davos World Economic Forum 2015...Patrick Pouyanne, chief executive officer of Total SA, speaks during a session on the opening day of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 45th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 21-24. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of Total, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January © Bloomberg

The chief executive of French oil company Total has urged Donald Trump to keep faith with the Iran nuclear deal and told the US president that oil and gas investment would help Iranian reformers in their struggle against hardliners in Tehran.

Patrick Pouyanné said he delivered the message at a dinner with Mr Trump and other European chief executives in Davos in January, highlighting Total’s emergence as the most vocal corporate champion of economic engagement with Iran.

“When I had the chance to have dinner with the president of the US, I asked the question [about Iran],” Mr Pouyanné told the Financial Times. “I made the argument, but the question is how much time do we give to the reformists? Do we give them enough time to . . . help them to go towards more democracy? I think Donald Trump listened; it does not mean that he agrees.”

Total signed a multibillion-dollar deal in July last year to develop the next stage of South Pars, the world’s largest gasfield shared between Iran and Qatar, marking Tehran’s first major contract with a western energy company since the lifting of some international sanctions in 2016.

Mr Pouyanné remained “fully committed” to the project but said Total had “several ways to exit” if sanctions were reimposed. “If the framework, the rules of the game, change, of course we will have to re-evaluate,” he said.

Mr Trump has threatened to pull out of the deal backed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions unless tougher conditions are imposed on Tehran.

A US withdrawal would take Iran “back to the past” when it was impossible for European companies to operate there, Mr Pouyanné added, particularly if so-called secondary sanctions were reintroduced targeting international entities active in the country.

Total has a 50.01 per cent stake in the South Pars project and China’s state-owned CNPC has 30 per cent while Iran’s Petropars owns the remainder. Mr Pouyanné said the project was “moving along” but Total had so far spent only about $50m — allowing it to withdraw without large losses if political circumstances change.

The FT understands that CNPC would be obliged to take over Total’s stake in the South Pars project if the French company was forced to withdraw, provided that the Chinese company was itself able to avoid sanctions.

Mr Pouyanné acknowledged that selling out to CNPC was a possibility but declined to discuss contractual arrangements. Another option would be stopping the project altogether, he added, but stressed that Total hoped an exit would not be necessary.

“When [the nuclear deal] was signed between Obama and the Europeans, the dynamic was to give a chance to the reformists in Iran . . . by creating more business and more jobs,” said Mr Pouyanné. “If we don’t deliver . . . we will not help reformists to create a positive momentum.”

He noted that North Korea had been a bigger focus of discussion at the Davos dinner than Iran but warned that a breakdown of the nuclear agreement with Tehran would make diplomacy harder with Pyongyang. “If you want to make a deal with North Korea on nuclear and at the same time explain that a deal done on nuclear [with Iran] is not good, what is the chance?” said Mr Pouyanné.

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