Nuclear Deal or Not, Iran Is Primed to Do Business
Ned Lamont recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Iran sponsored by the Young Presidents’ Organization, a global entity that bills itself as the “peer network of chief executives and business leaders.” He was the 2006 Democratic candidate for Senate in Connecticut, ran for governor in 2010, and is currently chairman of Lamont Digital Systems.
The latest revolution to convulse Iran is rampant capitalism. The lobby of Tehran's international hotel, The Parsian Azadi, was a modern-day bazaar with business people from around the world busily negotiating ventures. The American members of our YPO delegation were the only Americans there -- and they were not doing business. Whether we believe that the framework nuclear deal is the best we can get or sadly deficient, Iran and the rest of the world do seem to be moving ahead, assuming a final agreement at the end of June.
Turk, German and Chinese business people were congesting the elevators and filling the conference rooms; last week Iranian President Rouhani was walking hand in hand with his Turkish counterpart (despite their differences over Syria); Russia announced a weapons deal, Qatar and Dubai are rushing to upgrade their ports in anticipation of legal trade with Iran, and China has already stepped in to be Iran's largest trading partner.
Yes, the financial sanctions do bite, as evidenced by half built buildings all over Tehran and Isfahan and Shiraz, and the Iranian entrepreneurs and business leaders we met were very ready to jump-start their dreams. But for day-to-day life, the sanctions look pretty leaky (pass me another Coke). Kentucky Chicken and faux Starbucks will have to do until the real McCoys can buy them up. Facebook may be illegal but an estimated 15 million users are waiting for Rouhani to finish the 3G upgrade. The young entrepreneurs working out of incubators across the country are launching their Farsi versions of Craig's List and Groupon. Only Airbnb may be banned, since the law does not allow unmarried couples to rent a room. Temporary marriage certificates are a time-honored work-around for this prohibition.
Iran has a well-oiled work-around economy. Sanctions have created a black market that, instead of punishing the government and its cronies, allows them to get rich; they oppose the nuclear deal for mercantile reasons. But the next generation is tired of the expense and hassle of this work-around economy.
Our delegation saw very little evidence of the “Death to America” billboards much discussed in American media. We did see hundreds of billboards and memorial posters with black bunting hanging from street lamps -- memorializing the “martyrs” from the Iran-Iraq war. That war from 30 years ago is a daily reminder of the hundreds of thousands who died when, as the Iranians tell it, Saddam Hussein (backed by the Saudis and Americans) attacked the fatherland, including the brutal use of chemical weapons on civilians. They point out that nobody complained when Saddam's use of WMD “crossed the red line.”
That war reinforced the worst instincts of the ayatollahs, and today the government-sponsored press warns that Saudi-backed ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Yemen may be a modern-day Arab replay of that bloody 1980s war. But several European ambassadors pointed out that the Iran-Iraq war is losing its hold on the younger generation. One ambassador noted that the government had warned him with a wink that a spontaneous anti-American rally in front of his embassy was scheduled that afternoon. Many of the rent-a-demonstrators were checking their iPhones.
One young entrepreneur noted that Americans and Iranians have much in common: Iran is already privatizing its economy and the stock market has over 300 listed companies; women start up and run businesses. “Both of our countries are said to be religious,” the entrepreneur said, “but our generation rarely goes to mosque and yours rarely goes to church.”
Iran is an indoor-outdoor split personality. Outdoors public displays of affection are frowned upon, alcohol is banned, head scarves are required, pools and beaches are segregated. If outdoor culture in Tehran seems somewhere between Utah and Saudi Arabia, the indoor culture can veer toward Las Vegas. Indoors the chador gives way to the latest in European fashion, the wine flows, pools are being built, Taylor Swift is a hit, and many women have bandages on their noses since Iran is the rhinoplasty capital of the Middle East.
This split personality should remind us how important strict and intrusive verification of any nuclear deal will be, indoors and outdoors. But an on-the-ground look at Iran and the intense business networking there are reminders that the nuclear deal is not between the supreme leaders of Iran and America. It is a compact between a fast-changing and impatient Iran and the world community. That train has left the station and it is too late for the mullahs or the U.S. Senate to derail it.