President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of State expressed interest in a 2016 interview as CEO of ExxonMobil about doing business with Iran if sanctions were lifted, a view that puts him at odds with Republicans weighing his confirmation.
Rex Tillerson is scheduled to testify Wednesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which includes members opposed to deals between U.S. companies and Iran. Such business ties are possible following the lifting of sanctions under the nuclear deal negotiated by Iran, the Obama administration and five other world powers.
Last March, Tillerson told CNBC that his company would consider doing business in oil-rich Iran if the opportunity arose.
While U.S. companies are still unable to conduct business there, a lot of European competitors can, Tillerson told the business cable channel. Investment opportunities with Iran opened up after some sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal, which went into effect a year ago.
“I also learned a long time ago that sometimes being the first in is not necessarily best,” Tillerson said. “We'll wait and see if things open up for U.S. companies. We would certainly take a look because it's a huge resource-owning country.”
Republicans in Congress oppose the nuclear deal, saying it puts billions of dollars in the hands of an anti-U.S. regime that sponsors terrorism around the world. Last year, they moved to block financing for a large sale of Boeing commercial aircraft to Iran. Trump also has assailed the nuclear pact and vowed to scrap it.
ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers told USA TODAY on Tuesday that Tillerson, who resigned from the company to join Trump's Cabinet, was answering a hypothetical question in the CNBC interview. "Anywhere we can work legally, we would do so, but the current situation in Iran now is not one that allows us to do that," Jeffers said.
According to correspondence between ExxonMobil and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company did business with Iran through a European joint venture, Infineum, from 2003 to 2005, when U.S. companies were barred from doing business with Tehran.
The oil giant said the transactions were legal because they were conducted and managed by a European company co-owned with Shell whose management was independent and involved no U.S. personnel.
Tillerson was a senior vice president at ExxonMobil from August 2001 until he became president and director in March 2004. He became chairman and chief executive on Jan. 1, 2006.
In a letter to USA TODAY on Tuesday, Suzanne McCarron, ExxonMobil’s vice president for public and government affairs, said: “The transactions in question complied fully with all laws and regulations and no federal agency took action following the company’s responses to the SEC’s routine inquiry more than a decade ago.”
“The company had limited business in the countries during the 2003-2005 period asked about by the SEC, which strictly complied with all applicable regulations,” McCarron said.
Jeffers said no such joint ventures are currently in place with foreign companies doing business in Iran.
Tillerson's career at ExxonMobil involved finding, exploring and producing petroleum, and he was unlikely to have been involved in the joint venture before he became president of the company in 2004, Jeffers said.
"Prior to his time as president, he never would have been responsible for Infineum operations," Jeffers said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News on Tuesday that there was a loophole in the legislation that existed that allowed doing business with Iran. But that was closed in 2012.
"I don't think that any violations took place in that regard," Corker said. "But these are legitimate questions, and I'm sure he (Tillerson) is going to be very prepared to answer those."