Foreign Investors Flock to Iran

After years shunning Iran, western businesses are bursting through the country’s doors, although US companies are noticeably absent.

Dozens of development projects and deals have been hammered out since Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers in 2015 lifted a range of sanctions. Among them, France’s Peugeot and Renault SA are building cars. The UK’s Vodafone Group PLC is teaming up with an Iranian firm to build up network infrastructure.

Major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC, have signed provisional agreements to develop energy resources. And infrastructure giants, including Germany’s Siemens AG, have entered into agreements for large projects, reads a Wall Street Journal article. Excerpts follow;

Chicago-based Boeing Co. last year got the go-ahead to sell 80 aircraft valued at $16.6 billion to Iran. But for the most part, deals involving US businesses are few and far between.

Two of the world’s biggest automakers, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., have steered clear of Iran since the nuclear accord. A Ford spokeswoman said the company was complying with US law and did not have any business with Iran. GM is focusing “on other markets, and other opportunities”, spokesman Tony Cervone said.

  France “Leaves Rivals in the Dust”

Peugeot has taken notice. Its Middle East chief, Jean-Christophe Quemard, said Peugeot’s early entry has left US rivals in the dust.

“This is our opportunity to accelerate,” he said last month.

US companies are at risk of losing lucrative deals to early movers into a promising market of 80 million people, analysts say, setting off skirmishes among European and Asian companies eager to gain an edge on more-cautious US competitors. But as latecomers, US companies likely won’t face a learning curve in dealing with the political risks and the bureaucratic difficulties in Iran.

Apple Inc. explored entering the country after the previous US administration allowed the export of personal-communications devices in 2013, according to people familiar with the matter. But the company decided against it because of banking and legal problems, the people said.

Peugeot is aiming to hit annual production of 200,000 cars in Iran by next year in conjunction with its partner Iran Khodro, after the two signed a €400 million ($432 million) joint-venture agreement in June. Already, the pace of both Peugeot’s and Renault’s car sales in Iran has more than doubled. In February, Renault sold 15,230 vehicles in Iran, up 175% from a year earlier.

Asian companies, mainly Chinese ones, have had a growing presence in Iran even as the country was under sanctions. Some have stepped up activities since the nuclear deal, including China National Petroleum Corp., which joined France’s Total SA in a preliminary agreement to develop a major Iranian gas field in November.

On a recent visit in Tehran’s biggest hotels, lobbies were full of foreigners huddling with prospective Iranian partners. A packed automotive conference in February drew top executives from Peugeot, Renault and Citroën.

The same day, the Swedish prime minister was visiting a Scania truck factory west of the capital after the company’s deal to supply Iran with 1,350 buses.

  Broad Spectrum

Iran has caught the attention of a broad spectrum of investors beyond autos, with foreign companies selling everything from gas-powered turbines to mining technologies in the country.

Government-approved foreign direct investment shot up to more than $11 billion last year, official figures show, from $1.26 billion in 2015. Pedram Soltani, the vice president of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, said more than 200 foreign business delegations have visited Iran since the nuclear deal took effect.

“We see what’s happening in the US and Mr. Trump’s comments,” said Ghadir Ghiafeh, an Iranian steel-industry executive who is exploring partnerships with South American and European companies.

“Our businessmen don’t pay much attention to it.”

Foreign companies still face daunting obstacles to doing business in Iran. Iran has major economic problems, including high unemployment and a banking system saddled with bad loans.

Large international banks remain reluctant to reestablish links with Iran despite the nuclear deal. That reluctance has made transfers of money into and out of Iran a challenge.

Western banks such as Standard Chartered PLC, BNP Paribas SA and Credit Suisse Group AG have generally refused to handle transactions to Iran for fear of being fined for running afoul of banking sanctions that remain. Chinese and smaller European banks have attempted to step into the breach, even though many companies remain concerned about the regulatory environment.

Some smaller European asset managers have teamed with partners in Iran to launch stock and private-equity funds pitched to foreign investors. Charlemagne Capital, for example, a UK-based manager that specializes in emerging and frontier markets, joined Iran’s Turquoise Capital last April to launch Iran-focused funds. American brokers and asset managers have stayed away from the market, however.

Some large multinationals are keeping a close eye on the US and its new president. Shell, Total SA and OMV AG of Austria have signed memorandums of understanding for deals in Iran but have yet to complete terms.

Last month, Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said the company would wait for clarity from the Trump administration before completing a $4.8 billion investment in the country’s South Pars offshore gas field.

  Hard to Ignore

But many foreign companies are finding the country’s growth hard to ignore.

The International Monetary Fund recently estimated that the economy grew 7.4% in the first half of the Iranian fiscal year that ended this month, rebounding from a decline in the previous year.

Meanwhile, a surge in demand has pushed consumer spending in Tehran to $5,240 per capita so far in 2017, up about 11% compared with 2016, according to Planet Retail, a London research firm.

The upshot is that even though there is demand to buy American, much of Iran’s market is left to European and Asian companies.

“The market is now more diverse with Chinese cars and we realize how important it is to have satisfied customers,” said Mohsen Karimi, a sales manager at Iran Khodro, a domestic auto manufacturer that has a partnership deal with Peugeot.

“IKCO had sold out its stock of cars this past year and was now behind delivery targets for advance sales,” Karimi added.

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