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“King of oil” discloses his “secret lives”

Rich with one of his trademarks – a cigar Keystone

Commodity trader Marc Rich admits he's been painted as a "devil", but a new book by a Swiss journalist describes the billionaire as neither saint nor sinner.

Daniel Ammann, who interviewed Rich extensively for his book, The King of Oil, told how an oil pipeline through Israel – a joint venture between Iran and Israel – was one of Rich’s greatest successes at a time when the two countries were seemingly impossible trading partners.

Rich, aged 74, who lives on the shores of Lake Lucerne, has been a controversial character for years and he wasn’t always at the right place at the right time.

He was once accused by the United States of illegal trading with Iran and of tax evasion; for that reason he has never returned to the United States, fearing arrest.

Rich, who brought together business partners who officially didn’t want to be associated with each other, was pardoned on the last day of office of US President Bill Clinton, to the surprise and frustration of many. Daniel Ammann, what is your view of Marc Rich?

D.A.: I think he’s a very ambivalent person and as a trader in commodities, you are in a way working in the grey areas of capitalism. He is a very charming person, which surprised me because publically he was painted as the biggest devil and very arrogant and unscrupulous.

I had this image of him and when I met him I was surprised. He speaks very softly and he’s very friendly. I was surprised by his charm but at the same time of course he was one of the best traders in the 20th century so he had to be cunning as well. Is he the greatest tax fraudster of all time?

D.A.: He was to Rudy Giuliani (at the time a US Attorney) who prosecuted Marc Rich, but I actually think that this was more a public relations stunt from Giuliani; I do not think Rich was. But your book says that he was a bloodsucker of the Third World.

D.A.: I don’t say it. It’s a Swiss politician who branded him with that. Of course commodities today are found in countries which aren’t really beacons of democracy and human rights, so if you choose to trade in commodities it is a very delicate business and you are active in corrupt countries which are exploiting their own people.

On the other hand, it was actually Marc Rich who enabled a lot of African countries to exploit their own resources and to be independent of multinational companies. What made him so successful?

D.A.: I think actually he was a very, very good trader. He had a nose. He had the knack for discovering trends and at the time he became active independently … he realised that the world of commodity business was changing from multinational companies towards the governments of countries which wanted to exploit their resources themselves. They had to have independent traders and Marc Rich was one of the early ones, especially when it came to oil, so hence the title [of the book] The King of Oil.

He was always able to bring together impossible business partners such as, for example, Iran and Israel after the fall of the shah and I think this was one of his biggest successes.

The interesting thing in the mid-1970s, just before he became independent, was that Israel and Iran under the shah had a secret pipeline. This was a joint venture which was supplying Israel covertly with oil and it was actually Marc Rich who transported the oil and used the pipeline. How did he get into trouble?

D.A.: The trouble was in the US. He had the bad luck that he was trying to make money against oil price regulations. And there was this very young and very ambitious Rudy Giuliani who later became the mayor of New York and even a candidate for the presidency. I think Giuliani realised that Marc Rich was a blockbuster case for him and could be good for his own political career. You say that Switzerland was a “golden cage” for him, safe from any problems with the law.

D.A.: He was actually hunted by the US authorities all over the world. They even tried to kidnap Marc Rich in Switzerland, which was highly illegal according to Swiss law, so he had to be very cautious where he was travelling and that’s why I say that Switzerland was a golden cage. He was safe in Switzerland but he had to be extremely cautious where he would fly. He had to avoid, for instance, American air space when he flew to the Caribbean or to South America. His divorce from Denise was much publicised. Do you think that her financial contribution to the Democratic Party in the US was instrumental in getting Bill Clinton to pardon him on the last day of his presidency?

D.A.: I think Denise Rich was important insofar that she was a friend of Bill Clinton. Of course, if she had a wish or inquiry Bill Clinton would listen to her because she was one of the main sponsors of the Democratic Party. She was important to open the doors but I think the reasons Bill Clinton pardoned are elsewhere. Very important were the Israeli dignitaries who came forward to put in a good word for Marc Rich because he had been very helpful to Israel in supplying oil and in cooperating with the Israel intelligence service Mossad. The second reason is more on a psychological level. I think that Bill Clinton could relate to the story of Marc Rich because Clinton himself felt victimised by aggressive prosecutors after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Can you see a reason why Switzerland arrested film director Roman Polanski but not Marc Rich?

D.A.: I think the crime Marc Rich was accused of having committed was not extraditable according to Swiss law, but the more important reason is that the Californian attorney who wanted to have Polanski extradited did everything well. He asked Switzerland for legal cooperation in an official way and he got it, whereas Giuliani didn’t care about Swiss sovereignty at all. He even violated Swiss sovereignty and for more than one year he didn’t ask for legal cooperation from Switzerland, so Switzerland was not inclined to help Giuliani at all. And I think this is the reason in the end why Switzerland didn’t help Giuliani.

Robert Brookes in Zurich,

The book says:

For years Marc Rich covertly supplied strategic amounts of Iranian oil through a secret pipeline in Israel.

Rich financed operations of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and served as an informal mediator between Iran and Israel.

The US government once sent two US marshals to “kidnap” Rich from Switzerland.

Rich routinely provided the US government with highly sensitive information about key people in Iran, Syria and Russia.

Ex-wife Denise Rich received a total of $365 million (SFr370 million) after an extremely bitter and public divorce case.

Rich’s entourage meticulously planned the presidential pardon by Bill Clinton, deliberately bypassing the normal procedures. But Rich says he’ll never go back to the US.

Breaking international sanctions, Rich earned a total of $2 billion selling oil to apartheid South Africa.

Ammann is business editor of the respected Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche.

He was educated at Zurich University, the University of California at Berkeley and Fondation Postuniversitaire Internationale in Paris.

In 2007, he won the Georg von Holtzbrinck Prize for Business Journalism.

Ammann told that he spent about one and a half years on the book project, interviewing Rich for about 30 hours, and sometimes only gaining monosyllabic answers.

Rich was born into a Jewish family in December 1934 in the Belgian city of Antwerp. His family emigrated to the US in 1942 to avoid the Nazis.

Rich worked for his father, who was a commodities trader in burlap.

He married songwriter and heiress Denise Eisenberg in 1966. They had three children but divorced in 1996.

Before going independent, Rich learned the tricks of the trade at Philipp Brothers.

Rich, who holds Israeli and Spanish passports, was reported by Forbes business magazine to have a fortune of $1.5 billion in 2006.

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