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Iran's Natural Gas Conference Raises Concerns Over Western Sponsors

Iran is hosting a international conference on its natural gas exports Saturday and Sunday in Tehran. Organizers say the meeting is aimed at developing Iran's rich natural gas sector. Iran is under international sanctions over its nuclear program and the participation of major international energy firms in the conference is drawing criticism, as VOA's Sean Maroney reports.

French energy company Total and Austrian firm OMV are among the conference's main Western sponsors.

OMV is Central Europe's leading oil and gas corporation. It also is partly owned by the Austrian government, causing local groups to raise objections.

Simone Dinah Hartmann is with the Vienna-based group, Stop the Bomb, which lobbies for enforcing sanctions against Iran. She warns that Western companies' participation could have dire consequences.

"They think they are helping the Iranian people by investing in Iran," she said. "And I think it has to be made clear to them that, actually, they are the ones hurting people in Iran."

Hartmann says these types of investments could encourage Tehran to defy the international community and, ultimately, result in prolonged sanctions.

The United Nations, the European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Iran for its disputed nuclear activities. They accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons -- a charge Tehran denies.

Oil and gas analyst Fereidoun Fesharaki argues that international sanctions against Iran do not prohibit companies from talking with the Iranian government.

But U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack warns that any business discussions with Iran need to be carefully examined.

"Now is not the time to be discussing with Iran investments in its oil and gas industry, given its status in the international community regarding its behaviors, which are clearly outside the norm and have been judged by the [United Nations] Security Council to be outside acceptable international behavior," he said.

Iran holds the world's second largest natural gas reserves, after Russia. But Tehran has had trouble developing infrastructure for those reserves, in light of the international sanctions.

Even conference sponsor Total has scaled back its projects there. After Tehran tested long-range missiles several months ago, Total canceled plans to develop Iran's huge South Pars gas field.