- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Italian oil executives visit Tehran, scouting out deals. French farmers and fisheries discuss technological exchanges with their Iranian counterparts. Pakistan prepares to lay down a major oil pipeline through Iran, while rival India opens talks with Iranian officials about developing a major port in the Gulf of Oman to ship Indian goods to Afghanistan.

The Obama administration repeatedly cautions that tough bargaining remains ahead of a June 30 deal deadline to curb Iran’s nuclear programs, but already a number of countries — including some of the U.S.’s key allies in the talks — are lining up partners and announcing deals for the day when economic and financial sanctions against Tehran are lifted.

Iran’s oil — easy to access and cheap to extract — is a big draw, but it’s not the only one.

Russia, which angered the U.S. by green-lighting a blocked missile defense sale to Iran shortly after the preliminary nuclear accord was announced in April, said this week it has given six Iranian food concerns the right to export dairy and poultry products to Russia — at a time when meat, dairy and fish exports from the West are largely banned following the clash over Ukraine.

The Iranian news agency IRNA also reported this week that the first French-Iranian joint agricultural committee meeting was held in Tehran, where a half-dozen memoranda of understanding were signed to share technological knowledge and discuss two-way trade in organic gardening products such as grapes, apples and pears.

Iranian economic officials have even expressed a fear that an economy largely isolated because of the sanctions may be opening too fast for the country’s good.

“The Iranian market will be inundated with foreign investors and resources once the sanctions are lifted, and we are making every effort to manage the situation,” Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a former industries minister, said last week. “We would like to tell our trade partners in the West to consider cooperating with Iran rather than merely exporting consumer goods.”

The enthusiasm for deals could prove a political headache for the Obama administration, which has insisted that current sanctions could quickly “snap back” into effect if Tehran was caught cheating on its pledge not to seek a nuclear weapon and to allow international inspections. The more deals that are struck in the wake of a deal, the more difficult it will be to cut them off later on, critics of the deal have argued.

But the interest in the Iranian market shows little sign of slowing.

“If you go to Iran today, you find that there is an appetite for a lot of Western products,” Peter Westmacott, Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., said at an Atlantic Council forum this week.

“It is not surprising that a lot of companies would like to do business in Iran. It has great potential, resources and natural wealth. At the right moment, companies will start looking at that again.”

Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to Washington, said at the same forum that there was great “potential” in the opening up of the Iranian economy, but said Berlin’s message to German companies was to be “cautious.”

“The government advised our companies to actively hold back,” he said.

U.S. companies at the starting line

Even some U.S. companies have been inching closer to the starting line as the negotiations reach a climax.

ExxonMobil Corp. has stepped up its efforts to monitor U.S. policy on Iranian sanctions as the nuclear talks heat up. Bloomberg reported this month that the U.S. oil giant had hired a public affairs company founded by former Oklahoma Republican Sen. Don Nickles to keep tabs on the maneuvering between the White House and Capitol Hill on the eventual easing of sanctions. Exxon said it was not lobbying on the issue, merely trying to keep up with the latest policy shifts.

Exxon’s rivals are going even further. Claudio Descalzi, chief executive of Italy’s Eni SpA, traveled to Tehran earlier this month to discuss freeing company funds that were frozen in Iran and to discuss the possibility of future deals if the sanctions come down.

Iranian officials, he told the newspaper La Repubblica, “are willing to work together and get out of this situation.”

If a deal is reached and the sanctions are eased, “I think by year’s end Tehran could propose new forms of contracts closer to international standards and less punitive for operators and major oil companies,” he said to the paper. “If Tehran does this step, and I think the interest is there, this may be a turning point.”

Seemingly every day, Iran’s press reports a new deal or initiative challenging the economic sanctions. IRNA said this week Iran has won its first-ever contract to construct four refineries in an unnamed foreign country, refineries that could be used to process Iranian crude oil. India and Iran earlier this month signed a memorandum of understanding to expand the port at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman.

Even Iranian expatriates are eyeing the downfall of the sanctions.

In what is being billed as the largest gathering of Iranians outside the country in more than three decades, some 2,000 Iranians and members of the Iranian diaspora are set to gather in Berlin next month for the iBridges conference to explore opportunities to invest in Iran’s high-tech industries. Attendees, including entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, say they want to be ready the day the walls come down.

Iran has an untapped market, and it is easier to work here,” Ehsan Razzazi, who rejected U.S. job offers to stay in Iran and develop a Spotify-like music-streaming startup, told the Financial Times. “We may not have this atmosphere in five or six years’ time.”

Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, said at the Atlantic Council forum that American critics of the Iranian gold rush should recall that Iran’s neighbors and its traditional trading partners in Europe have suffered far more from the sanctions than most of their American counterparts.

“Really, we lost a lot of money, not the Americans,” he said. “So stop taking the high moral ground. European businessmen are not more greedy than the American ones and not less either.”

• Brennan Weiss contributed to this report.

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