Last week Bloomberg and several other media outlets began breathlessly reporting on oil giant Exxon Mobil foray into Iran sanctions “lobbying.” On April 16 Exxon retained a D.C. lobbying shop, the Nickles Group, founded by former Senator Don Nickles. In their original Lobbying Disclosure form, the intended work included “issues related to Iran and Russian sanctions.” When Bloomberg discovered the form, it ran a story with the title “Exxon accelerates Iran sanctions lobbying as nuke accord looms.”
The speed with which Exxon issued a denial is indicative of how toxic Iran is still considered from a reputational risk standpoint.
Within 24 hours of Bloomberg’s reporting, Exxon had issued the following statement
“ExxonMobil is not lobbying on Iran sanctions,” said Ken Cohen, vice president of Public and Government Affairs.
“Erroneous media reports resulted from errors in a consultant’s lobbying disclosures. Current U.S. law prohibits American companies from operating in Iran.”
Since the Bloomberg story broke, the Nickles Group has also revised its Lobbying Disclosure to read
Click here to view image.
Bloomberg’s original story has since been updated as well, with a new title “Exxon Deploys More Sanction Watchers as Iran Nuke Deal Looms” (the original title is still reflected in the article’s URL). It’s as if the initial lobbying disclosure never even happened.
Did Exxon really intend to lobby Congress on Iran sanctions, perhaps towards a potential loosening of restrictions on U.S. oil companies? Maybe, but I find it highly dubious.
In the near to intermediate term, Congress would be a bad target for Iran lobbying aimed at loosening restrictions on U.S. companies, as sanctions relief will be effectuated entirely by Executive action. Furthermore, the danger in lobbying Congress posited by one lobbyist to Reuters a few years ago still holds – “You are unlikely to flip any lawmaker, but you could offend them.”
If Exxon did in fact intend to lobby, it’s telling that the minute the information became public they felt the need to walk it back. U.S. companies, unlike their European counterparts, are loath to express too much desire to get into Iran due to the country’s negative public perception. This goes double for a member of “big oil.” Even GE, which has sold medical devices to Iran for years, while donating the profits to charity, doesn’t like to publicize its activities.
Maybe this will change if a comprehensive nuclear agreement is signed on June 30. But the odds are it will be several years before there’s even a chance Iran will be opened to U.S. firms in any substantial way.