London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The future potential of the Iranian market after international sanctions are lifted dominated the first Europe-Iran Forum held at a central London hotel on October 15 and 16, just yards away from the US embassy.
The forum was organized by a number of Iranian businesses in conjunction with the European Voice newspaper, a leading source of news and analysis on key EU policies, laws and institutions based in Paris. The main purpose of the forum was to “properly prepare and evaluate the post-sanctions trade framework and investment opportunities.”
The forum was attended by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. Although no current EU or UK officials were present at the forum, Asharq Al-Awsat learnt that UK and US officials attended as observers.
In his keynote speech, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw outlined his views on differentiating UK-Iran relations from Iran’s nuclear dossier. Straw, who currently serves as Labour MP for Blackburn, had previously led British negotiations with Tehran between 2003 and 2005. He is known to have a positive attitude towards international rapprochement with the Iranian regime.
Straw expressed optimism that the P5+1 group of nations (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear file. He said that all sides must work together to reach a deal, particularly following the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which represents a dual threat to the international community and Iran.
Straw said that reaching a partial deal is far better than the status quo. As for what will happen if no deal can be reached, he said: “In this case, while Russia and China will only adhere to UN sanctions, some EU companies will gradually follow suit hence we will see the sanction regime’s decaying.”
According to Straw, UK trade with Iran between 2008 and 2012 decreased by 50 percent in the areas of foodstuff, agriculture and medicine. During the same period, US trade with Iran doubled hitting over 600 million US dollars, he said.
More than 200 business delegations attended the Europe-Iran forum in London, including Iranian businessmen and women, oil and gas companies, as well as representatives from Iran’s food, advertising, communication, retail, renewable energy, tourism, banking and IT sectors.
The event took place against the backdrop of the latest round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry as the two sides seek to narrow the gap between Tehran and Washington and reach a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear file.
The US and UK have taken a firm position prohibiting the agreement of any business deals while negotiations are ongoing. Some media outlets were reportedly not permitted to attend the first Europe-Iran forum while organizers sought to ensure that the event did not breach US/EU sanctions.
Radio Farda, which is the Persian branch of the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, claimed that a number of media outlets were not permitted to attend the Europe-Iran forum in London by organizers although at least two representatives of Iranian opposition media were present at the conference.
The most controversial figure to attend the business conference was Sir Martine Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, a multi-national advertising agency. In a speech at the forum, Sorrell said that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—during a private conversation with him at last year’s Davos World Economic Forum—had supported Tehran normalizing relations with all countries in the region, not ruling out Israel from the equation. Sorrell said that there seem to be a gap between the Iranian president’s public and private remarks regarding Iran normalizing relations with foreign states.
The WPP chief also offered a comprehensive analysis of the Iranian market, saying that this remains the only remaining market that contains huge attractions for foreign investors. However he made it clear that so long as Iran does not recognize the state of Israel, investment with and in Iran will remain problematic.
The first Europe-Iran Forum brought together a diverse collection of influential and fast-growing Iranian private companies who were eagerly promoting the potential for foreign investments. But all remained wary of effective extra-territorial sanctions imposed by the US, which prohibit any trade or financial activities with Iran unless a license for that specific business activity is issued by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).
One of the forum’s organizers, Esfandiar Batmanghelidj, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We wanted to showcase and introduce to the world, in particular EU and US policy makers, that Iran has a thriving private sector with considerable growth potential and access inside Iran.”
He said that the aim of the forum was not necessary to secure immediate business deals but to “bridge the divide and open dialogue with Iran’s private sector.”
The organizers announced that the next forum will be held in February in Tehran where a diverse range of international companies are expected to travel to Tehran to meet with potential partners.