CONFERENCE CALL: Europe-Iran Forum in Zurich dampens some of the initial hype

By bne IntelliNews May 9, 2016

Following the partial lifting of sanctions on Iran in January, international business has been abuzz with the prospect of one of the “last big emerging markets” opening up, but US sanctions and intransigence continue to dampen the mood.

The latest Europe-Iran Forum, held in Zurich on May 3-4, pitched itself as the last stop before entering Iran proper, and with dozens of business delegations looking to enter Tehran, it could be the final pit stop to understanding the future.

And it has to be said there was a lot of interest among delegates gathered in the Swiss financial capital about the potential of the Iranian market and the billions in profits to be made. But as the deflating feeling from last year’s event in Geneva shows, the picture still remains mixed on how to actually trade with Iran or even set up representative offices there.

In its third year, the Europe-Iran Forum aims to dispel some of the lingering half-truths and confusion that still perturb Europe’s business delegations about the Islamic Republic.

Jarrett Blanc, the US State Department’s man on the ground in Zurich during the nuclear talks, ultimately blamed European banks for their hesitation in moving to Iran. ”We want banks to do trade with Iran, but they have their own systematic methods [which take time],” he said.

He added that everybody pointing fingers at the State Department wasn’t helping matters, as it is actually the European companies themselves who are hesitant about entering Iran.

Meanwhile, Iranian business groups at the event are still exuberant about the potential for attracting foreigners and their investment to the country.

Mehdi Karbasian, CEO of IMIDRO, Iran’s largest government-owned industrial enterprise, insisted that Iran is a positive country to invest in. ”Foreigners can own 100% of Iranian companies,” he noted, adding that, “our government is making every effort to enable foreign direct investment”.

Since January, thousands of business delegations from over 20 countries have come to Iran, the latest of which were the British, who lagged their European compatriots, with the arrival of the new British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce Director and Special Iran Attache for the current Conservative administration. Norman Lamont offered British Export Finance along with a raft of other goodies to Iranian companies in his latest visit in April, but Iranians were not so impressed with the terms of the deals.

Several other financial groups for the Central European and Nordic countries have offered deals to the Iranians, some of which were stuck on the sidelines of the Zurich event. Accordingly, one large Swedish apparel company was believed to be soon entering the Iranian market, according to people at the conference. 

Another visit organized by the Middle East Society is also due to arrive in Iran in the coming weeks, with over 50 companies represented in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector.

Iran’s government recently received over $30bn of frozen assets by the US, all of which has now been used to pay off existing debts. In addition, several countries have signed Memoranda of Understanding that is in excess of another $30bn, according to reports from several Iranian news outlets.

But the problem of foreigners sending money to Iran remains. The BBC’s Amir Paivar questioned Blanc on whether he knew of any companies that have managed to send money to Iran. He was met with a guarded response by the US official.

Due diligence remains difficult

As companies are beginning to discover, doing business in Iran remains a difficult endeavour. Pat Thaker of the Economist Intelligence Unit noted that, “Due diligence is not a one-time-only exercise... [that with countries like Iran] you have to do repeated due diligence.”

Overall, the mood for the third forum with foreigners and Iranians in the room was more nuaunced in 2016; unlike previous forums, investors are starting to understand that Iran is not just another catch-up story like Central and Eastern Europe.