Economy, Business And Markets

Post-Sanctions, Post-Forums

Post-Sanctions, Post-ForumsPost-Sanctions, Post-Forums

The third and latest gathering of the Europe-Iran Forum will begin in earnest on May 3.

Running for two days, the event will bring leading players from several sectors to the Swiss financial capital of Zurich to discuss the post-sanctions environment in the Islamic Republic.

The organizer has excelled where their competitors have repeatedly tripped over; they have managed to dodge several obstacles, including the US’ Office of Foreign Assets Control minefield (i.e, sanctions), while also not falling foul of visa restrictions for their Iranian attendees, to name a few of the hurdles.

This year’s event seems to be the pinnacle of their organizing skills. Not only did the group manage to keep the momentum going in the post-sanctions phase over excitement and then, as some would say disappointment, they also managed to get such luminaries as Jeroen van der Veer, chairman of Royal Philips Electronics, and Mehdi Karbasian, the head of Iranian Mines and Mining Industries Development and Renovation Organization, to attend the event.

Topics on the upcoming event’s agenda include insurance, private equity, marketing and communications as well as risk and due diligence, which areas concern the foreign investment community.

But when the events finish, what will become of the dialogue of trade? Will interest in cooperation through joint ventures disappear from the public discourse? Will investors’ excitement for Iran wane in the coming months, as we move on from these talking shops? I disagree on this for several reasons.

As much as everyone agrees that “forum fatigue” is starting to take its toll on the investment community and that the same names appear to roll out every event, there remains a line of dialogue that must remain constant, that is diplomacy.

Firstly, as political diplomacy can only play a limited role in the active engagement of foreign business coming to the Islamic Republic, another form of relations will take shape, namely business diplomacy.

Business diplomacy can be defined as a method of diplomacy that concerns an activity conducted by public and private actors. Working in liaison with government commercial agencies, business diplomacy is the work of a network of public and private actors who manage commercial relations using diplomatic channels and processes.

Secondly, as multinational corporations continue to rely on Iranian expatriates and “country experts” to enter the Iranian market, they rely on knowledge acquired through visits and by dealing with the wider expatriate Iranian community for their grasp of business dealings in Iran.

In addition, they also face several obstacles. For example, there is little to corroborate the information given by a person. Another issue is the reliability of the given data for the promotion of a new product in the Islamic Republic.


Multinationals face further obstacles in the wider environment; be it the need to grapple with the ever-changing political environment in the country while also understanding the several million stakeholders that could be using or interested in their product.

Without the act of business diplomacy, the market remains a mystery and information is not disseminated in a level fashion.

Business diplomacy is not just a simple buzzword for the marketing manager but a serious undertaking for a qualified candidate. The dozens of challenges facing those entering the Iranian market need to be brought to the fore and discussed if people are to have a pain-free entry into the local market.

“In order to realize this core competence, global companies should create a business diplomacy management function consisting of a business diplomacy office, similar to the public affairs office but expanded to include diplomatic functions and placed under direct supervision of the CEO” says Raymond Saner in his book called Business Diplomacy Management released in 2010.


Dialogue, too, remains a prescient issue when dealing with the foreign partner, and as many industry experts will attest to, dealing with Iran has its unique challenges and opportunities.

One-on-one meetings will only give the foreign partner a certain amount of clarity when dealing with their Iranian partner.

The benefits of large group events like those European forums have been the “critical mass”, which successive meetings inside Iran may miss. When you have several hundred people in a conference center, business dialogue increases at an exponential rate. Meetings happen on the fly and interesting and quite unexpected things happen.

What business diplomacy can do in this regard is keep the dialogue alive post-event, but the “buzz” of the event cannot be replicated.

  Atomization of Events

Originally, when events began touting titles like Iran-Europe Trade Forum and so forth, they were novel and unique, as one business executive told me at the time “they allow us to rethink about ourselves in the wider international context”.

But since then, as more niche sectors have begun to see the concept as a money-making business, such titles as Iran Exporter Conference et al have become more common, even inside Iran. The problem with this breakdown of dialogue happens when those who may have come to the broader conferences end up in some niche conference and find themselves struggling to network.

In such a conference, the concept of business diplomacy is lost due to the low-brow nature of the event, with only limited exposure to governmental help from business associations and chambers.

In sum, the glory days of promoting Iran abroad through conferences may be coming to an end, but with the growth and the further active engagement from governments, both local and foreign business diplomacy may be able to remain in the mix when developing relations with new partners.

What comes after the forums, be it the further atomization of the industry or a gradual ebbing of interest, remains to be seen.