Economy, Business And Markets

US Firms Prepare for End to Iran Sanctions

US Firms Prepare for End to Iran SanctionsUS Firms Prepare for End to Iran Sanctions

Ahead of an expected lifting of sanctions, several US corporate giants, including personal-computer seller HP and General Electric’s oil-services unit, are actively exploring a market entry into Iran.

US companies other than food, aircraft-parts and medicine suppliers are still banned from conducting direct transactions with Iran. But last week, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing that sanctions relief on Tehran could start in January, when an agreement with world powers over Iran’s nuclear program is implemented, the Wall Street Journal wrote.

On the nuclear agreement’s “Implementation Day”, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control will issue a general license authorizing foreign-based arms of US corporations to engage in activities involving Iran, a US official said.

Worried they could be left behind their European and Asian peers in the race to do business with a country of over 77 million people, some American companies have prepared to go as soon as the sanctions lift, drafting contracts and sending envoys to Iran as the country gets set to open up its economy.

“Major US companies do not seem worried anymore with covering their tracks in Iran, suggesting a high degree of confidence in the end of the embargo,” said Denis Florin, head of Paris-based energy consultancy Lavoisier Conseil, who advises foreign companies seeking to enter the Islamic Republic.

“But with sanctions slated to end soon, looking at Iranian opportunities is no longer as politically charged as it used to be,” he added.

The opportunity could be massive. Iran’s market for computers, gaming devices and handsets is set to rise to $13 billion within four years, from $9.5 billion in 2014, according to UK-based consultancy BMI Research.

Foreign companies still have to tread carefully.

An official at the US Treasury said only “non-US companies and individuals will not be subject to US sanctions if they engage in initial discussions about potential business opportunities or travel to Iran to examine the possibilities of business relationships after sanctions are lifted”.

“Entering into contracts involving Iran before Implementation Day may be sanctionable,” the Treasury says on its website, except for specifically allowed trades such as food, medicine and aircraft spare parts.

US companies have been consulting with the State Department and Treasury to ensure conversations held by their non-American subsidiaries remain compliant, according to a US State Department official and other people familiar with the matter.

“People are exchanging draft contracts but nothing has been signed,” the US official said.

As a result, US companies are sending non-American subsidiaries to test the waters.

In one recent example, Hewlett-Packard (Suisse) Sarl, the Swiss subsidiary of Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP, last month circulated draft agreements with Iranian distributors to resell its consumer products, such as tablets and laptops, in Tehran, according to people familiar with the prospective contracts.

Non-US HP staffers met the potential distributors in Dubai and Tehran, and last month held an internal meeting to discuss the opportunity, the people said.

To keep confidentiality tight, HP exchanged only hard copies of the documents with its prospective partners and asked them to sign the documents and return them by post, according to one person familiar with the matter.

The US computer giant also has told its prospective partners in Tehran that no deals would be signed by HP or announced until the nuclear agreement with Iran is completed, the people familiar with the draft contracts said.

An HP spokeswoman said “business activities, including those undertaken in the Middle East, are conducted in full compliance with US and other applicable global trade requirements”, but declined to comment further.

HP has been particularly unsettled by early forays by some of its competitors into Iran’s technology sector, according to people familiar with its internal discussions.

Earlier this year, Lenovo Group Ltd., the world’s largest PC maker by volume, said it was exploring Iranian opportunities and invited dozens of Iranian retailers to an event at a plush Tehran hotel to drum up interest for its latest laptops.

The Hong Kong-based company, which bought International Business Machines Corp.’s PC business in 2004, retains strong American connections. It has a second headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. But its Chinese ownership made the Iranian entry easier, people familiar with the matter say.

Last year, Apple Inc. started contacts with Iranian distributors about possibly entering the country with the full gamut of its business activities, including selling its iPhones, desktop computers, laptops and even opening Apple stores, should western sanctions ease sufficiently.

Talks have continued with local distributors, though they have been slowed by issues such as Iran’s lax intellectual-property protection, according to people familiar with the matter.

Apple declined to comment on Tuesday.

Other US-registered companies are also testing the waters. A spokesman for international oil-services giant Schlumberger Ltd., based and registered in Houston, Paris, London and The Hague, said its representatives attended a conference in Tehran where oil contracts were presented last month. He declined to comment further.

“Iran expects to attract $30 billion in investment in oil and gas fields after offering new, more attractive contracts,” its Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has said.

Representatives from Nuovo Pignone, an Italian oil and gas subsidiary of GE, visited Iran last month as part of an Italian government delegation to the country, said a spokeswoman for the US industrial-equipment maker, which is based in Fairfield, Conn.

“GE and its subsidiaries operate in full compliance with all applicable sanctions laws,” the spokeswoman said. “Like many companies, we are following the regulatory and commercial landscapes that may unfold with respect to Iran going forward.”