Marc Rich, the Man Who Sold Iranian Oil to Israel

Marc Rich, the businessman who died yesterday, defied U.S. sanctions to continue dealing with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Yet with those profits, he became one of Israel's most generous donors.

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Businessman Marc Rich, who died yesterday in Switzerland at the age of 78, will be buried today in Israel. Rich died of a stroke in a hospital near his home in Lucerne. According to Forbes magazine, Rich's 2012 assets totaled $2.5 billion.

Rich was a controversial figure. On one hand, until he was pardoned in 2001, he was a fugitive who was charged in the United States in one of the biggest tax evasion cases in U.S. history and of trading with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, despite U.S. sanctions. On the other hand, although he was also charged with trading with countries hostile to Israel, senior Israeli government officials, public institutions and non-profit organizations honored him and even pressured former U.S. President Bill Clinton to pardon him. Nonetheless, Rich was never convicted in the United States for tax evasion, trading with Iran or any of the other charges brought against him.

Rich donated hundreds of millions of shekels to Israeli organizations, including the Labor Party, the President's Council, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, the Israel Museum, the Philharmonic Orchestra and others.

In recent years the fog surrounding the sweeping support for Rich was dispelled. An interview he gave in 2009 to Swiss journalist Daniel Ammann - later published in a biography that Ammann wrote about him called "The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich," which was translated into Hebrew and adopted by Rich – revealed another aspect of his life.

In the book Rich admitted that he had purchased oil from Iran even after the Islamic revolution during the reign of Khomeini, as well as during the U.S. hostage crisis in 1979, and until the mid-1990s. He claimed that a large percentage of the Iranian oil went to Israel during those years.

According to Rich, Israel was dependent on Iranian oil even after diplomatic relations between the countries were severed. He said that his business connections with Iran began before the revolution, with the knowledge of senior officials in the Iranian regime, and he simply continued doing business despite the American sanctions. He said that the Iranians continued "to honor the contracts."

When Clinton tried to explain why he should pardon Rich and his partner Pincus (Pinky) Green on his last day as president, one of the reasons was the many requests he received from senior Israeli leaders in Likud and Labor, including Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres. According to Clinton, they explained to him that Rich had donated to Israeli non-profits and to the Mossad's efforts to rescue Jews from hostile countries, as well as to the peace process by funding education and health initiatives in Gaza and the West Bank.

In a 2002 interview with Newsweek, Clinton said he regretted granting the pardon and that it had harmed his image.

Rich claimed in the book that he was in effect a Mossad collaborator. He said that he provided information to the Mossad about what was going on in Iran, Syria and Russia to help Israel, and that he did in fact assist in efforts to bring Jews to Israel from Ethiopia, Yemen and Arab countries. According to reports, Ritz allowed the Mossad to use his corporate offices to camouflage their activities.

All those who received donations from Rich made sure to conceal his past, such as his dealings – according to media reports – with President Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with Iran, and with South Africa during the apartheid era and to emphasize his contribution to Israel. A foundation through which he worked doesn't provide transparent reports on its activity in Israel and only after the pardon did it begin to emphasize Rich's name. During that period, Rich kept a low profile and refused to give interviews.

In spite of this, the foundation is estimated to be one of the largest and most generous in Israel. It was established by Rich, his former wife, songwriter Denise Rich, and his business partners Alec Hackel and Pincus Green; the latter fled with him from the United States. According to its reports, the foundation donated over $135 million over the past two decades.

Rich, who was born in Belgium, began his career with Philipp Brothers, one of the largest raw materials trading companies at the time, and left in 1974 with Green to establish the commodities company Marc Rich & Co. AG. Rich and Green were the first to pioneer the spot market (goods for immediate delivery) for crude oil, and they exploited it to realize quick profits. Due to his great success in the field, Rich was dubbed the "King of Commodities."

Rich's company eventually became the commodities giant Glencore International, but Rich sold it in 1993 and started a new company, Marc Rich and Co. Holding, also in Switzerland. In addition to investing in commodities, Rich expanded his investments in the 1980s to additional sectors, purchasing 20th Century Fox studios along with industrialist Marvin Davis in 1981. But in 1984, after Rich fled from the United States, Davis sold his share to Rupert Murdoch for $250 million.

Marc Rich in 1985.Credit: Reuters

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