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US ‘forced’ Shell and BASF to reject bid from Iran

THE TIMES: US ‘forced’ Shell and BASF to reject bid from Iran

5 May 2005

By Carl Mortished, International Business Editor

SHELL and BASF succumbed to pressure from Washington when they turned down a €4.4 billion (£3 billion) Iranian bid for Basell, their chemicals joint venture, said the managing director of Iran’s National Petrochemical Company (NPC).

Mohammed Reza Nematzadeh blamed the decision by Shell and BASF not to proceed with the offer on intense lobbying by US officials anxious to keep up the pressure on Iran to drop its nuclear fuel programme. “Although NPC won all aspects of the Basell tender, due to US pressures we are unofficially told Iran cannot buy Basell,” Mr Nematzadeh told ISNA , the Iranian news agency.

“The enemy has always inflicted harm on us and this time the United States deprived us of the benefit of buying Basell.”

Shell and BASF are believed to be close to a deal with Haldia Petrochemical, an Indian-Russian buyer that is backed by Purnendu Chatterjee, an Indian entrepreneur, and Leonard Blavatnik, a Russian metal and minerals tycoon.

Mr Blavatnik has come to prominence as a major shareholder in Tyumen Oil Company, BP’s Russian partner in the TNK-BP joint venture, and in Sual, the aluminium smelter.

The sale of Basell, a plastics manufacturer and world leader in polypropylene — used in making plastic bottles, car parts and toys — has proved to be tough for the Anglo-Dutch oil firm and its German partner. Shell and BASF wanted to be rid of the volatile commodity plastics business and had hoped to shed the assets as the chemical industry cycle moved into a long-awaited upswing last year. However, European and US private equity funds appeared reluctant to pay full price and the two shareholders were forced to look to industrial buyers in Asia.

Based in the Netherlands, Basell has plants in 20 countries, including the US. Of potentially greater political importance is Basell’s technology business, which owns proprietary industrial processes and state-of-the-art chemical manufacturing technology.

Basell is an attractive prize to an ambitious petrochemical company from the developing world. For an Iranian or Indian buyer, it is a chance to gain access to the best technology and to important customers in America and Europe. Bulk plastics manufacturing is an industry that is quickly shifting to the Gulf, where petrochemical feedstocks are cheap, and to East Asia, where demand for plastics is booming.

Geopolitics may have scuppered the Iranian bid but Shell, too, has a long-term interest in the ultimate buyer of Basell. The oil company, which would not comment yesterday on the negotiations, said that it had significant long-term contracts to supply Basell with ethylene, a volatile gas that is a by-product of the refining process and a key raw material in plastics manufacture.

Haldia’s main backer, The Chatterjee Group, is thought to be most interested in Basell’s repository of patents and technology, which would give Haldia an edge in the booming Asian chemical business.

Based in Calcutta, Haldia is an upstart rival to Reliance Industries, India’s petrochemical giant and is a major producer of polypropylene.

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