Iran: From Zero to Trading Hero?

With the lifting of economic sanctions, Iran could well be THE global market growth story of the coming year.

It isn’t often that a large and mature economy opens for business with half the world in one fell swoop. But that’s exactly what is on the cards following with the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran this February.

Only the Saudi Arabian economy is currently bigger in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and Iran, with a population of some 80 million, almost two-thirds of whom are under 30, is poised to challenge for the number one spot in the coming years.

First Steps

Tehran Honorary Consul for Ireland in Iran Alireza Feizollahi says that a path is now being beaten to Iran’s door.

“Right now, if you want to book a hotel in Tehran, it’s almost impossible. Trade delegations are coming here every week from all over the world,” Feizollahi says. But he cautions that this is a highly regulated country and companies must carefully study the market to see how they can be successful.

Sean Davis, Enterprise Ireland’s Manager for the MENA region, has been closely following developments in Iran’s $400bn economy. He points to a very real hunger in the Iranian business community for new technology and innovation to fuel economic development. “Iran has been on the side lines of global growth for some time, and there is a huge appetite to redress that. All around, you get the sense of people driven to capitalise on the new opportunities.

Given the closed nature of the economy in recent times, primary research, in the form of market visits and relationship building, is highly recommended. Davis stresses that preparation and planning are very important on every front, from securing the necessary business visa to identifying the best way to utilise your time there. “Though English is commonly spoken, it doesn’t predominate. You won’t be able to use your ATM or credit cards, and Tehran is a very large and very busy city, and by no means cheap. Packing a short itinerary with meetings that criss-cross the city isn’t going to be a runner,” he warns.

Enterprise Ireland will be supporting a number of exploratory visits in 2016, with areas such as healthcare, aviation, agri-tech, education, ICT, financial services and fintech all in the mix. Fintech is likely to be among the more immediate opportunities given that the country’s financial services sector requires considerable investment and upgrading as it reconnects with its peers across the globe.

For clients, Davis recommends the first step is to contact Enterprise Ireland itself. “We are building a contact base of people Irish companies can reach out to, who will help suggest meetings and allow them to hit the ground running.”

Search for Quality

Dr Amir Kordvani, a senior associate with international law firm Clyde & Co, advises on sectoral investments across the Middle East and recently undertook a detailed look at the potential Iran offers to companies across the business spectrum.  “What Iranian businesses are looking for, and it will be a requirement to any procurement proposal, is to show that you are bringing the very latest know-how and technology to the country. They are not interested in something from 10 years ago,” he says.

Irish companies are frequently warned of long sales cycles when they enter a new market, but Kordvani’s view is that Iran could represent something of an exception. “It really depends on how strong you are in the area you are operating. However, generally, Iranians are very commercially minded, value strong relationships and are very frank and open, so it doesn’t take that long to build trust from that perspective.”

 A final, but important, piece of advice is to recognise that, whatever field you operate in, the value of quality customer service as a differentiator cannot be overstated. “In the past, customer service has been very poor in Iran,” Dr Kordvani says. “If you want to lead and exploit your opportunity, then you should prioritise your customer service and your after-sales support as much as the quality of your product. Companies that can do that will be very well rewarded in this market.”

Visit the Enterprise Ireland Gulf States portal for information on accessing the Middle Eastern markets.