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Christopher Ends His Role in Debate on Conoco-Iran Deal

March 13, 1995|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — 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-of-interest matters, choosing to avoid even the suggestion of impropriety.

U.S. officials said Christopher learned Thursday night that the Los Angeles firm O'Melveny & Myers had been retained by Conoco in connection with the project to develop an offshore oil field in the Persian Gulf. The deal, which surfaced last week, is the first of its type between a U.S. company and Iran since Washington broke off relations with Tehran in 1980.

Christopher, a 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.

On Sunday, Christopher told reporters aboard a flight from Israel to Jidda that despite his future silence on the Conoco issue, he will continue to play a role in Administration efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically.

Christopher met in Jidda 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 that were imposed on Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Before the meeting, Christopher expressed concern that "commercial concerns" might cause at least two of the Gulf states to waver. But a joint communique said the six Arab countries agreed that the sanctions should remain "until Iraq fully complies with all its obligations."

But even as they agreed with Christopher that Iraq's failure to comply with all U.N. conditions is "a travesty," the Gulf officials expressed concern at the misery the sanctions were causing Iraqi citizens. Christopher agreed to consider measures that would allow Iraq to sell oil to obtain money for humanitarian purposes, but he said the Iraqis will have to make the first move.

Later--much later--Christopher met with Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. The secretary of state was left cooling his heels in a plush hotel until he was summoned to the palace 5 1/2 hours after his appointment time.

A senior U.S. official said the meeting was dominated by a discussion of Iraq. Lt. Gen. Daniel W. Christman, assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave Fahd a detailed intelligence briefing concerning increasing unrest in Iraq.

The official said Fahd adopted a "very hard-line" stance against the Baghdad regime.

After his meeting with the king, Christopher 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 in order to silence him, Christopher replied, "Absolutely not." Nevertheless, the agreement has had 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 President Clinton and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake "are very tough-minded on Iran."

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