American businessman preps for 'huge' opportunities to come in potential Iran deal

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, it’s The World. If you’re looking to invest in a foreign country with untapped potential, how about Iran? Assuming there’s finally a nuclear deal with Iran--not guaranteed, I know. But if it happens, there could be an easing of economic sanctions on Iran, and that’s got Dick Simon pondering the possibilities. Simon is chief executive of a Boston-based real estate company. He’s also a member of the Young Presidents Organization, a global network of business leaders.

 

Dick Simon: Well, this is--actually, we just completed our third trip to Iran, and there’s tremendous interest. There’s been, over the years, interest in trying to have a better, more nuanced understanding of a very important geopolitical player that we tend to know very little about. This trip was particularly oversubscribed and particularly interesting to people because of what’s gone on in terms of nuclear agreements, and possible dropping sanctions, and the like.

 

Werman: But you started going on these trips before the discussion of the nuclear negotiations, so clearly there’s something intriguing about Iran for you.

 

Simon: Sure. So, we did the first trip when Ahmadinejad was still the president of the country, and it was a very, very different environment. What’s intriguing for me and for all those who have been going is trying--we know a single narrative about Iran, and our narrative tends to be what’s encapsulated in Argo, or if you needed, Homeland, to give you a more current situation. And yet, when you get there, you have a completely different experience of the country, and what we were there for is to try to better understand that.

 

Werman: So, is your calculus kind of that the nuclear deal will go through, sanctions will be eventually lifted step by step, and Iranians will just want the same stuff the rest of the world already has, they’ll want it legally, and investors will profit?

 

Simon: I think they already want it and they already have it. Going around the streets, you see American goods all over the place. You see iPhones, you see other smartphones, you see clothing with every leading brand. That said, in a country where international access has been really difficult, there are tremendous gaps and holes that Americans and others will be rushing in to fill.

 

Werman: And those gaps and holes are around where?

 

Simon: Technology, the oil sector, infrastructure; Iran has not been able to get replacement parts for many airplanes; medical equipment; luxury goods. You name it. Any sector has huge opportunities once things open up.

 

Werman: Let’s say sanctions are lifted. Won’t there be other challenges that will stand in the way of foreign business making investments in Iran?

 

Simon: Sure. You want to be in a situation where you’re comfortable with rule of law, with transparency, without corruption, as you do in any other market and country. But since Iran is a newer opportunity, there will be that much more sensitivity to those issues.

 

Werman: And what about working with some of the state monopoly there?

 

Simon: A number of the companies there are state monopolies or quasi state monopolies, and there will be some opportunity in that as those contracting opportunities open up.

 

Werman: What’s been the reception for you and the other business people with the Young Presidents Organization when you go there? I mean, are the Iranians intrigued by what could come in their future?

 

Simon: The biggest surprise is the way we’re received by Iranians. We’re loved. In several situations, we weren’t allowed to pay for things because they were so happy we were there. That’s the average Iranian’s...

 

Werman: That’s the average Iranian, but you’ve also had meetings with pretty high-level officials in the Iranian government. So, what about their reception?

 

Simon: There are a range of different responses. The people who we met with were all very interested in possibilities for future trade, future development, and closer relations. We met with the Vice Minister for Information and Communications Technology, who pitched very hard the opportunities there.

 

Werman: It’s interesting, Dick: you’re a part of a select group, maybe the only American who’s had this level of consistent contact with Iran since the 1979 revolution there, and you’re also Jewish. What’s it been like, from that perspective, working with Iranians?

 

Simon: So, we have found--we visited with synagogues, we visited the Jewish community, and learned some really surprising facts that were shocking to us, actually.

 

Werman: Well, that might be surprising in and of itself, that there are synagogues in Tehran, there is a community there of Jews.

 

Simon: In Tehran, in Isfahan, and some other communities. So, we visited with them and learned in addition to the communities being there and vibrant and in conversations, not complaining about discrimination or other problems, we saw Jewish community members on the street, wearing yarmulkes or the hat that some more observant Jews wear, with no concerns about anti-semitism. We learned that Iranian Jews, in a country that is otherwise dry, no alcohol permitted, are allowed to import alcohol for religious purposes. So, there are actually special concessions made to accommodate the minority population rather than discrimination. Now, there is a very strong feeling of anti-Israel, or what they call anti-Zionism. But that has not manifested in anti-semitism or discrimination against Jews living in Iran.

 

Werman: Dick Simon, a member of the Young Presidents Organization, which has been organizing trips for business people to Iran for the past couple of years. Thank you very much.

 

Simon: Pleasure being here. Thank you.