US companies other than food, aircraft-parts and medicine suppliers are still banned from conducting direct transactions with Iran. But last week Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing that sanctions relief on Tehran could start in January, when an agreement with world powers over Iran’s nuclear program is implemented, The Wall Street Journal reported.
On the nuclear agreement’s “implementation day,” the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control will issue a general license authorizing foreign-based arms of US corporations to engage in activities involving Iran, a US official said.
Worried they could be left behind their European and Asian peers in the race to do business with a country of over 77 million people, some American companies have prepared to go as soon as the sanctions lift, drafting contracts and sending envoys to Iran.
“Major US companies do not seem worried anymore with covering their tracks in Iran, suggesting a high degree of confidence in the end of the embargo,” said Denis Florin, head of Paris-based energy consultancy Lavoisier Conseil, who advises foreign companies seeking to enter the Islamic Republic. But with sanctions slated to end soon, looking at Iranian opportunities is no longer as politically charged as it used to be, he said.
The opportunity could be massive. Iran’s market for computers, gaming devices and handsets is set to rise to $13 billion within four years, from $9.5 billion in 2014, according to UK-based consultancy BMI Research.
An official at the US Treasury said only “non-US companies and individuals will not be subject to US sanctions if they engage in initial discussions about potential business opportunities or travel to Iran to examine the possibilities of business relationships after sanctions are lifted.”
“Entering into contracts involving Iran before Implementation Day may be sanctionable,” the Treasury says on its website, except for specifically allowed trades such as food, medicine and aircraft spare parts.
US companies have been consulting with the State Department and Treasury to ensure conversations held by their non-American subsidiaries remain compliant, according to a US State Department official and other people familiar with the matter. “People are exchanging draft contracts but nothing has been signed,” the US official said.
As a result, US companies are sending non-American subsidiaries to test the waters.
In one recent example, Hewlett-Packard (Suisse) Sarl, the Swiss subsidiary of Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP, last month circulated draft agreements with Iranian distributors to resell its consumer products, such as tablets and laptops, in Tehran, according to people familiar with the prospective contracts.
Non-US HP staffers met the potential distributors in Dubai and Tehran, and last month held an internal meeting to discuss the opportunity, the people said.
Earlier this year, Lenovo Group Ltd., the world’s largest PC maker by volume, said it was exploring Iranian opportunities and invited dozens of Iranian retailers to an event at a plush Tehran hotel to drum up interest for its latest laptops. The Hong Kong-based company, which bought International Business Machines Corp.’s PC business in 2004, retains strong American connections; it has a second headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. But its Chinese ownership made the Iranian entry easier, people familiar with the matter say.
Last year, Apple Inc. started contacts with Iranian distributors about possibly entering the country with the full gamut of its business activities, including selling its iPhones, desktop computers, laptops and even opening Apple stores, should Western sanctions ease sufficiently.
Other US-registered companies are testing the waters. A spokesman for international oil-services giant Schlumberger Ltd., based and registered in Houston, Paris, London and The Hague, said its representatives attended a conference in Tehran where oil contracts were presented last month. He declined to comment further.
Iran expects to attract $30 billion in investment in oil and gas fields after offering new, more attractive contracts, its oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, has said.
Representatives from Nuovo Pignone, an Italian oil and gas subsidiary of GE, visited Iran last month as part of an Italian government delegation to the country, said a spokeswoman for the US industrial-equipment maker, which is based in Fairfield, Conn.