At a trade show in Tehran, businessman Behnam Ronagh’s talk flipped back and forth between the difficulties of operating under the world’s toughest sanctions regime and his hope that relief was on the horizon.
Nearly four years after former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, Rohner is betting that indirect talks between Iran and the United States to revive the 2015 deal will succeed, revitalizing the Islamic Republic’s corporate sector fate, including the manufacturer of PVC films where he worked.
Standing in front of the company’s display of flame-resistant plastic tablecloths, the sales manager was enthusiastic about the company’s possibilities to attract foreign partners and expand exports after sanctions were lifted. He added that potential customers in Europe and the Middle East have been contacted by email.
“Their connection is being re-established, and they are giving us positive energy,” Rona said. “The nuclear deal is important to everyone.”
The 39-year-old’s enthusiasm reflects temporary optimism in the corporate world, as Western officials say Vienna nuclear talks is in the final stage.
This optimism is based on the belief that despite hostilities between Tehran and Washington, they have no choice but to strike a deal. With the rial plummeting and inflation soaring, the republic wants to ease the economic pressure on Iranians, businessmen say.
But any positivity is checked uncertain On whether hardliners in the regime, who control all arms of the country, are willing to compromise to reach a deal. Uncertainty has been exacerbated by Western officials insisting that time is running out for Tehran to decide whether to strike a deal or not, making it difficult to decipher the Iranian leader’s statement on the talks.
“We’re just waiting,” said another businessman, who had to abandon plans with European partners when Trump launched his maximum pressure campaign in 2018.
Even as some in the business community are enthusiastic about the prospect of a deal, President Ibrahim Raisi has dampened that sentiment. He slammed the United States and reiterated that Iranians should not pin their hopes on a deal with the West.
Speaking at a meeting of foreign diplomats, Lacey said the Biden administration had expressed a desire to revive the agreement but was not “significantly different” from the Trump administration. “Our country will not succumb to threats, pressure and unilateralism,” Rice said.
A regime insider said his remarks, along with others from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, showed Iran’s firm stance on the talks. “We had a great dinner of kebabs and salads. If you give us that, we’ll have good food,” he said. “If not, we’ll have the bread and cheese we’ve had for years,” the person said.
The Iranians say the key to the hardline government of Reisi, elected in June, is to secure a deal that can serve as a better deal than the one his predecessor, the pragmatist ex-President Hassan Rouhani signed in 2015 . If not, they say, the regime fears losing its hardline supporters who are ideologically opposed to engagement with the West.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said he will return to the deal if Iran reverses its nuclear progress — which also includes Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China. But Iranian negotiators in Vienna want assurances that a future U.S. president cannot unilaterally withdraw from the deal and that all Trump-era sanctions, including those related to human rights and terrorism allegations, will be lifted.
Some see rhetoric from both camps as a gesture to try to appease domestic voters.
“Iran says they can manage the economy with sanctions, but they know it’s impossible in practice,” said a petrochemical executive.
He added that Iran’s priority was not to attract Western investment, but simply to be able to trade freely and export oil. Crude exports fell to less than 1 million barrels per day from more than 2 million barrels per day in 2017, mostly to China. “We don’t need their investment, we need their expertise, their equipment and their market,” he said.
Westerners in Tehran say European companies will show interest in engaging with Iran if a deal is reached. But they cautioned that the momentum was much smaller than when the agreement was first implemented. The companies that invested at the time were not only sanctioned when the U.S. pulled out, but they also witnessed first-hand the challenges of operating in the republic.
“Interest is returning, but not like 2015,” said Dagmar von Bohnstein, managing director of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Tehran. “It’s definitely more realistic for businesses now.”
About 50 companies from Germany, Iran’s largest European trading partner, remained in the republic after Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, with Iranian managers overseeing those operations, she said. The companies hope to expand if sanctions are lifted, “but it will be more difficult to convince their headquarters in Germany to support the strategy,” von Bornstein said.
“It’s not an easy market, and Western companies now understand how difficult it is to survive and succeed,” she added.
Another Iranian businessman said he was contacted on WhatsApp by some of his Western colleagues to ask “what happened”. But he added: “Nothing serious, no plans, no one saying ‘Can we still do business in Iran?'”
“People are always worried that the next U.S. administration will pull out,” he added. “This is the story of Iran, you won’t die [under sanctions], but you will go into a very deep sleep. “