Why Western business eyeing Iran is a good thing
February 14th, 2014
12:39 PM ET

Why Western business eyeing Iran is a good thing

By Cornelius Adebahr, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Cornelius Adebahr is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of Tehran Calling: Understanding a New Iranian Leadership. He taught political science at the University of Tehran in Iran from 2012 to 2013. The views expressed are his own.

Iran may be continuing its global charm offensive, but the U.S. government is still having trouble selling changes in Iran policy to an American audience.

The latest example came late last month, following Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's trip to Davos, Switzerland. During his appearances at the World Economic Forum, Rouhani invited gathered world and corporate leaders to take advantage of the opportunities that the opening up of Iran offers. But such encouragement is only likely to provoke ire in Washington, a point underscored just days later when U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was grilled by the Foreign Relations Committee over fears that the foreign firms lining up to do business with Iran could diminish Washington's leverage in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

It's a compelling argument on the surface. But it is also one that belies a misunderstanding of the reality on the ground – and how the situation is viewed from within Iran.

"Most of these delegations appear to be going to get themselves in line for the day when, in fact, a comprehensive agreement is reached, if it is reached," Bloomberg quoted Sherman as saying. "And we have told them all they are putting their reputations, themselves and their business enterprises at risk if they jump the gun."

But the idea that business should continue to hold back for political reasons is not only unviable, but could be counterproductive. Indeed, insisting that Iran is still not open for business suggests that many policymakers in the United States are underestimating the importance of communicating properly in this conflict, especially towards an Iranian public yearning for signs that their economic lot is close to improving.

International firms flocking to Iran are preparing for the moment sanctions are properly lifted. Yet rather than undermine the U.S. position, preparatory activities are actually raising expectations among business people and the broader public in Iran that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Such optimism could also help bolster Rouhani's standing vis-à-vis his hardline opponents, who have been sharply critical of a deal with the United States.

Ultimately, the debate over Iran's nuclear program is about the perception of who is right or wrong, and the U.S. must make sure it stays on the right side of that debate.  True, a robust sanctions regime has contributed to getting Iran to the table. But it is hard to imagine continuing international backing for tough measures if the U.S. and its allies don't alter their approach as Iran shows signs of compromise. Indeed, the notion that the current level of pressure should be extended indefinitely (or even increased if some U.S. politicians ever get their way) is misguided. Now that at least a minimum level of trust has been established through direct talks among foreign ministers and the conclusion of an interim agreement, the rest of the world is now looking toward some kind of resolution.

But even setting aside political principle, it is clear that in practical terms, the hardline approach has not been quite as effective in discouraging Western business in Iran as some might have hoped. Anyone who has spent time in Tehran, even before Rouhani's election, will have noted the apparently healthy supply of Western products, from Coca-Cola to iPhones – all a testament to the creativity of companies able to do business legally in a country under sanctions. Indeed, American companies, rather than sitting on their hands when it comes to Iran's 70 million consumers, have been surprisingly active. They may not send official delegations but, through intermediary agents, many firms are actively seeking out investment opportunities in sectors ranging from chemicals to oil to food.

Of course, many remain sympathetic to the frustration of U.S. policymakers over the urge of companies, European and American alike, to do business with a country that they still consider a grave threat to international peace. But if things go awry, these firms will have the luxury of being able to wait for the situation to improve. Iranian businesses – and Rouhani's government – may not be in quite so comfortable a position.

With that in mind, the U.S. should be a little more sanguine about the preparations that the private sector has been making. Rather than undercut the pressure that the West has been trying to apply, the carrot of an improved economy might create more pressure for change from within than slavish adherence to the stick.​

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Topics: Economy • Iran

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soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    Western comapanies doing business with Iran is truly a great idea all the way around. This could very well put a crimp into U.S. bullying that country and allow Iran to prosper once again. I truly agree with Cornelius Adebahr above.

    February 14, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Cornelius Adebar might be right. He had lived in Tehran and seen Western goods available despite sanctions. Well, the Revolutionary Guard is said to run much of the businesses in Iran. They might have a finger in the pie, that Western goods be "smuggled" into the country. Indeed, the Revolutionary Guard and members of the ruling elite belong to those, who oppose the interim deal and negotiations with the West, because these hardliners don't suffer under the sanctions like ordinary Iranians.

      February 16, 2014 at 6:56 am | Reply
      • Ray

        sources? or did you invent this tidbit like most of your other "facts".

        February 19, 2014 at 9:29 am |
    • John Smith

      America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
      In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
      During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
      In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
      Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

      February 17, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  2. chrissy

    Except its Israel doing the bullying not the US.

    February 14, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  3. mark

    He does not know the Mullah that all are liar. They changed the tactic , because the Ahmadi nejad tactic failed and they switched to the new policy. Talking and pretending that they gave up about the bomb to get rid of sanctions, but keep all their atomic facilities safe like Parchin site that they did some nuclear explosion test and never permitted any visiting.

    February 14, 2014 at 10:42 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Are the Iranian Mullahs any worse than the right-wing thugs in Washington, Mark? Somehow I don't think so!

      February 15, 2014 at 8:29 am | Reply
      • mark

        Iranian Mullahs wanted to be in the power and capture all Iranian wealth with ignoring human rights for Iranian people and doing dictatorship inside of Iran and also getting bomb to control the middle east.

        February 15, 2014 at 10:31 am |
      • tony

        Thank you ,

        February 16, 2014 at 4:14 am |
  4. mark

    They welcoming the European bankrupt companies and promising them a big profit to get their support for removing sanctions.
    They are great charlatan!

    February 14, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Reply
    • tony

      Mark is a nice name but what is your Persian name ?

      February 16, 2014 at 3:36 am | Reply
    • George

      The charlatans are the one who imposed the sanctions in the first place under false excuses.

      February 16, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  5. tms5510

    If west don't let their business community to start talking now they will lose it to Asia.

    February 15, 2014 at 10:49 am | Reply
  6. majoon

    Sanction Israel NOT Iran.

    February 15, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  7. mark

    Iran regime is Terrorist center for training and also keeping them safe to send them all over the region.
    Washington post:
    A senior al-Qaeda figure with close ties to the terrorist group’s current leader has left Iran, where he had lived for years after fleeing American forces in Afghanistan in 2001, according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials.
    Thirwat Shihata is the latest terrorist suspect to leave Iran, raising questions about the country’s motives for allowing or forcing the departure of a string of al-Qaeda members that it had sheltered over the past decade.
    U.S. officials said that Shihata, a 53-year-old Egyptian, was the deputy of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current leader, when he ran Egyptian Islamic Jihad before it formally joined forces with Osama bin Laden in 1998.
    “Shihata is among the few remaining members of al-Qaeda’s old guard,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of not having authorization to talk publicly about the movements of the al-Qaeda figures. “His ties to Zawahiri extend back decades, as both men cut their teeth in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. . . . Shihata has kept a low profile in recent years, but there’s no question that he’s one of the more seasoned terrorists at large today.”

    February 15, 2014 at 9:48 pm | Reply
    • George

      I see you are an expert in copy and paste. You have no idea what you are talking about. Quoting the rag-sheet WP does not give you credibility. Al Qaeda is a mortal enemy of Iran.

      February 16, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  8. tony

    Can you slow down a little bit , stop cut and pasting your always ready response to any article about Iran no mater what the subject is. fox news and Israel's almost angel leaders do a good job of informing the world about Iran they don't need your help .

    February 16, 2014 at 4:10 am | Reply
  9. Amin

    The US Congress just want to be fifth wheel in the negotiations. They have no positive input just a drag. Think about it, if foreign companies flock to Iran, it raises the expectations both within Iran and outside to come to a negotiated deal. Is that a bad thing? What have we learned from Cuba? Sanctions by themselves don't bring about change. The regime and their cohorts always survive, it is the people who suffer. So if you want a more open society in the long run, you need to be on the side of the people, not the other way around.

    February 16, 2014 at 8:57 am | Reply
    • Felix Unger

      Well said, Amin. Thank you. The politics of hunger needs to be outlawed at the UN once and for all!

      February 16, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  10. jackie

    Agree with this article. What really pizzes me off is this; who the hell is US to say if Iran is open for business or not? Imagine anothe country says US is not open for business because they say so.

    February 16, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  11. cirus

    what is pathetic is Obama's bending over for the ruthless mullahs.....there are thousands of innocent young Iranians rotting in the mullahs' dungeons, but who gives a crap......
    Obama's 'advisors' are the same loonies who 'advised' carter that Khomeini was a saint and that the shah was a monster.....and we see how they were so wrong!!!!
    the mullahs' regime is a vile, evil cancer that can only be removed by force, but it seems that Obama and his cohorts want to keep them in power.....as long as the Chinese, Russian, French, and the rest of the 'allies' get to get in on the raping of iran's resources.....
    had the shah not stood up to this filth, iran would be a powerhouse nation way way ahead of the south Koreans, arabs, etc

    February 16, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • George

      Well, actually the largest population of prisoners in the world is in the USA. Almost 1% of the American people are in prison, the highest incarceration rate in the world. So, please don't talk about Iranian dungeons. The dungeons are in Guantanamo, American prisons and foreign hell-holes operated by the CIA.

      February 16, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Reply
      • Felix Unger

        Thank you, George. I couldn't have said it better!

        February 17, 2014 at 8:17 am |
  12. chrissy

    Well said @ George! And the tragic part of that is many havent even been CHARGED with a crime, much less tried and sentenced! How the he!! can that happen is beyond me. And furthermore....it is OUR hard earned tax dollars footing the bill!

    February 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  13. Aaron rown

    Iranian people are extremely proud. The very existence of the US is a slap in the face to them. That's why you see their president talk about "being humiliated" by the US. Anything more powerful than them is humiliating since it contradicts their religion which says they ought to be dominating the world. They will always seek the destruction of the US just for this reason, their pride won't let them accept being second best. Furthermore, Iran's news system is fully controlled by the government, by a few people who hate the US. This is similar to any dictatorship, Iranian people are continually being fed hate messages against the West. Years of this hate propaganda have made the Iranian people extremely angry at the US, which accomplishes nothing except to further the divide between us. The people of Iran have never heard one single good news story about the US in their entire lives, and the blame for that is on their leaders who are controlling their news.

    February 16, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • George

      I have never read so much garbage in my life. Do you have a brain? Iranians are indeed proud of their history but where did you get the stupid idea that they want to dominate the world? Iran hasn't attacked another country since 1729. Do you know how many countries the U.S. has attacked just in the last 50 years?

      February 16, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  14. chrissy

    Lmao @ George, you rock!!! Another common sense moment right? And im sure if the Washington warmongers have their way we will be in another one very soon. I watched McCains interview tonite and im quite sure if he has his way we will be into it soon with Syria!

    February 16, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  15. mark

    Khamenehii Supreme leader of Iran told today: We will not get any agreement with 5 + 1 (because we do not give up the bomb), but negotiating is fine (because we try to get rid of sanctions)!!

    February 17, 2014 at 10:32 am | Reply
    • George

      Please stop lying. He said nothing of the kind. He said that he is not optimistic, but he won't object to negotiations.

      February 17, 2014 at 11:00 am | Reply
  16. chrissy

    Sometimes @ George, ya just gotta consider the source. In this case the source is someone who has alot of hate to spread around. And yea most likely an un~informed tool! Best to ignore him and maybe he will grow tired of talking to his self! ;)

    February 17, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • George

      But, others may believe him. This was such an obvious lie that it had to be corrected.

      February 17, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  17. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    February 17, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  18. chrissy

    Lol yea @ George. He probably thrives on raising your blood pressure though! And ya cant fix stupid right? Well....unless youre that rehab place that Rodman went too maybe. Course i doubt he was "fixed" either. Maybe trained a little! Lol

    February 17, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Reply

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