U.S. businesses reach out quickly to partners in Iran

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As the Obama administration lifts some of the sanctions against Iran as part of the West’s nuclear deal with the Islamic republic, some U.S. companies are looking at Iran for possible business opportunities even as skeptics warn that Iran remains an unstable environment for business.

Nuclear ambitions aside, Iran boasts 80 million consumers and a $500 billion economy, third-largest in the region behind only Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But analysts say Iran’s purchasing power is nearly twice the size of that gross domestic product figure because so much money has been bottled up over the years as part of the sanctions.

Now, Iranians are ready to spend, and they are looking to the U.S. and elsewhere for cars, airplanes and mining equipment, according to the newly founded Iran America Chamber of Commerce.

“They’re ready to buy, they have the money now,” said E.J. Miller, an Iranian-American who founded the Iran America Chamber of Commerce to help connect companies from both countries that want to do business.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday in a televised speech at an open session of parliament that the sanctions relief was already helping boost the country’s economy. The Obama administration estimates it will bring $7 billion to the Iranian economy over the next six months, as negotiators work toward a long-term deal.

“Economic activities have been shifted to the stock exchange from gold, hard currency and real estate,” Mr. Rouhani said in his speech.

American companies wasted no time in reaching out to Iran about possible business opportunities, after news that some sanctions had been temporarily lifted for the next six months. According to Mr. Miller, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Boeing, Chevron and ExxonMobil are among a handful of companies that have contacted Iranian diplomats in Washington about the possibility of selling there.

“American companies have been sitting like hawks,” said Mr. Miller, born Ekram Manafzadeh, who immigrated to America in the 1970s. “They used to do business in Iran, and now they want to go back. They know Iran is a huge market with lots of money.”

But skeptics are warning against doing business with Iran, even if the sanctions are lifted.

“American companies are playing a dangerous game in thinking of going back into Iran now,” said Nathan Carleton, spokesman for United Against Nuclear Iran. “An interim diplomatic agreement that has consistently been described as temporary and reversible is not a justification to rush back into Iran or do business with the regime. Sanctions must still be obeyed and enforced.”

All of this could lead to an unstable business climate for American companies, who may rush in and then back out of Iran, depending on how the next round of nuclear talks go.

However, Mr. Miller paints a much different picture of Iran, one of a country where its citizens are suffering for the ambitions of the government.

“All this is nonsense that Iran is going to do some sort of bomb,” said Mr. Miller, who founded the Iran America Chamber of Commerce shortly after meeting with Mr. Rouhani when the Iranian leader traveled to New York City this fall to deliver a speech to the United Nations.

Mr. Rouhani asked Mr. Miller to find American companies that would be willing to do business in Iran, and he pledged in full support to open up his country’s markets to these companies.

Mr. Miller says Iran is looking to buy 50 aircraft from Boeing, one of the world’s leading aerospace companies. Iranian officials also want to buy 1,000 taxis, and are considering whether to go with Ford or GM.

“We try to put them together: Here’s a buyer, there’s the seller,” Mr. Miller explained.

Hoping to make this happen, the Iranian government has organized a business trip for Iranian companies that Mr. Miller will host near his Rockville office in January. Mr. Miller said he expects a number of American companies to attend and meet with their Iranian counterparts and possibly with the nation’s economy minister and central bank governor.

“There is a substantial amount of business to be done between American companies and Iranian companies,” Mr. Miller said. “Iran could be an ally and friend of the United States in the entire Middle East.”

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