On a May afternoon in Tehran, a Russian in a dark suit sits in the crowded lobby cafe of the Espinas Persian Gulf International Hotel with his Farsi translator. No sooner do they vacate their armchairs than another group of besuited businessmen takes their place, this time conversing in Italian and Farsi about industrial motors.
Today, however, amid glimmers that sanctions will be lifted , finding a room at the Espinas isn’t easy. “All the five-star hotels are full of Western companies looking to position themselves to do business -- and also Japanese and Chinese companies,” says Sarosh Zaiwalla, a London-based lawyer who specializes in sanctions regulation and who travels frequently to Tehran. Iran has seen a huge surge in the number of Western business delegations, says Amir Cyrus Razzaghi, the head of Ara Enterprise Group, a consulting firm in Tehran that provides market research and business intelligence to clients. Closed market In February, a group representing more than 100 French companies -- including engineering group Alstom SA, telecommunications company Orange SA and carmaker Renault SA -- visited Tehran, the largest foreign-trade mission the country had ever hosted. Groups  from Canada, Europe, and the U.S. have also come. Companies that were once active in Iran, such as French oil giant Total SA and Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker, have publicly expressed interest in returning. Iran -- one of the world’s largest closed markets -- may be on the verge of opening for business after years of isolation, says Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital Ltd., a London-based investment firm. “This is the last major opportunity out there in the world that can suddenly become accessible, almost overnight,” he says. Diplomatic breakthrough What’s raised investor expectations about doing business in Iran is a diplomatic breakthrough that could clear the way for sanctions to be lifted. Brokered with Iran in November by the U.S., China, Germany, France, the UK, and Russia, the deal eased some sanctions temporarily in exchange for Iran’s commitment to limit some aspects of its nuclear program. The Joint Plan of Action, or JPA, released $4.2 billion in Iranian funds frozen in foreign banks and suspended sanctions on petrochemical exports, gold trading, the sale of goods and services in the automotive industry, and the supply of parts and maintenance to Iran’s civil aviation industry. Huge opportunity Iran has 76 million people, about the same number as Turkey. As recently as 2011, it produced twice as many cars as Turkey,  according to the Paris-based International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers. It consumes more steel annually than either the UK or France, according to the World Steel Association. And the Tehran Stock Exchange, or TSE, has a market capitalization of about $135 billion, three times the value of the main stock market in Vietnam, with a population of 89 million. While once-embargoed markets such as Myanmar and Libya lack developed financial markets and physical infrastructure, Iran has both, Robertson says -- presenting an opportunity that’s “just huge.”
‘Plan in Place’ Still, companies -- particularly those that sell pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and consumer goods already subject to fewer restrictions -- would be foolish not to draw up contingency plans to enter the market if sanctions are lifted, says Matthew Spivack, a London-based consultant at Frontier Strategy Group. “Not having a plan in place, not thinking about it, is what will really put you behind,” he says. Among those that have publicly expressed interest in Iran is Canadian transportation company Bombardier Inc.“Our role right now is to understand when sanctions could be lifted and how we could take advantage of a market we feel will be important for all of our products,” Pierre Beaudoin, Bombardier’s chief executive officer, said at a news conference after the company’s annual meeting on May 1.
‘Getting lapped’ “There is a sense that they are getting lapped by the Europeans,” says Reza Marashi, research director of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, which represents the interests of Americans of Iranian descent in the U.S. “The Europeans didn’t sanction themselves out of influence in Iran like we did.” Asked at a press conference about U.S. criticism of French businesses, including Total, that have held exploratory talks with Iran, Total CEO Christophe de Margerie said, “When it becomes legal to work in Iran and contractual terms are satisfactory, I don’t see why Total would deprive itself of the possibility to beat out its Anglo-Saxon competitors in Iran.”
‘Personally impressed’ Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising and marketing services group, was among several CEOs who met privately with Rouhani at the ski resort. “I personally was impressed,” Sorrell says. “It seems he is bent on changing Iran’s relationship with the West.”Sorrell says WPP has begun researching Iran’s business potential. On August 10, Rouhani lashed out at hardline critics in his country who oppose negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. “Fear of interaction, fear of negotiation and fear of understanding is wrong,” Rouhani said, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
Energy projects Iran will need outside expertise to boost crude production significantly, says Robin Mills, head of consulting at Dubai-based Manaar Energy who traveled frequently to Iran as a Royal Dutch Shell Plc geologist in the 1990s. Within weeks of the JPA announcement in November, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh met in Vienna with the chief executives of two oil and gas companies, Italy’s Eni SpA and Austria’s OMV AG. In addition, Eni and Total have sent representatives to Tehran to discuss energy projects, says Akbar Ne’matollahi, the Iranian Oil Ministry’s spokesman. “Approximately every week, we have meetings with the delegations of these companies,” he says. “There have even been negotiations with some American companies. They are ready too.” In May, some 1,800 exhibitors crowded Tehran’s sprawling International Permanent Fairground for Iran’s annual International Oil, Gas, Refining, and Petrochemical Exhibition. The oil ministry said 600 foreign companies attended, although many were small Chinese and South Korean firms.
Auto companies Jerome Budin, an international manager at Rotork Controls Ltd., an electric valve–making subsidiary of Rotork Plc, a company based in Bath, England, was among the few Europeans staffing an exhibitor’s booth. Budin says Rotork has attended the fair for 12 years and sold products to Iranian petroleum, water and power companies after securing the necessary licenses. “It’s quite a big market for us,” Budin says. “Obviously, we are looking forward to an easing of the sanctions.” Western auto companies are also revving their engines over Iran. In 2013, even though U.S. sanctions on the auto industry were still firmly in place, Iranians bought more than half a million new vehicles, according to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers; most of those were domestic models manufactured by Iran Khodro Co. and Saipa Automotive Manufacturing Group. Iranian partners In January, Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn told Bloomberg Television that this figure could increase threefold if sanctions were fully lifted. The JPA temporarily removed sanctions on the auto industry, and Renault, Europe’s third-largest automaker, has resumed shipping kits that its Iranian partners, Iran Khodro and Pars Khodro, assemble into vehicles. Renault had abandoned the market in 2012 because of sanctions. Fellow French automaker Peugeot SA had been Iran’s leading car supplier, with a 30 percent market share, before it too withdrew in 2012. In the spring, Peugeot executives traveled to Iran to talk about coming back, spokesman Pierre-Olivier Salmon says.