(photo credit: REUTERS)
ZURICH - Switzerland's ambassador to Iran on Thursday called Iran a "pole of stability" in the Middle East and urged companies to make the most of a lucrative market about to re-open after years of crippling sanctions.
Ambassador Giulio Haas was addressing some 500 Swiss business people as Europeans race back to Iran, whose markets and oil will be much easier to tap once sanctions are lifted, under a global deal struck last month.
"Iran seems still for a lot of people to be bearded, elderly gentlemen with turbans. You see them, but you see not a lot of them, especially when you're dealing with business," Haas said.
Iran's adversaries in the Middle East, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the deal Tehran struck with world powers, limiting its nuclear work in return for sanctions relief.
In the United States where Iran has long been seen as a regional menace, the US Congress has until Sept. 17 to vote on the deal backed by President Barack Obama but opposed by many Republicans.
Haas said his nearly two years in Tehran had convinced him Western perceptions of Iran as the world's most-aggressive nation were about to change.
"Iran at the moment is most probably the pole of stability in a very, very unsafe region," he told the conference.
Britain reopened its embassy in Tehran
on Sunday, catching up with rival European powers that have rushed to tell Iran their companies are ready to restart business. France's foreign minister visited Tehran just two weeks after the nuclear deal was agreed on July 14.
Iran's financial system should escape crippling restrictions next year, leaving foreign companies contemplating 80 million consumers, $35 trillion worth of petroleum reserves and deep infrastructure needs.
Companies including engineering group ABB Ltd bank UBS and agriculture equipment maker Bucher Industries AG attended the event in a Zurich hotel hosted by a Swiss export-promotion group.
Swiss exports to Iran have fallen more than half to less than 400 million Swiss francs ($415 million)since 2008 as tightened UN and EU sanctions forced many companies to cut ties with the country.
"It's very important for us that the stream of money in Iran reopens," said Christian Wuerzer, managing director at insurer SwissCare, whose products cover expatriates and diplomats.
Marzban Mortaz, director of a Tehran-based juice and milk packager, said access to Swiss financiers is essential if the country's economy is to double or triple post sanctions.
"With that size of economy, everyone has expansion plans," he told Reuters. "Companies in Iran are cash-strapped."
Experts cautioned that Iran remains a difficult market, telling the conference that bureaucracy, nepotism and corruption were common, as were the threat from product piracy and legal unpredictability.
"The corruption is still at unbelievable rates," said Sharif Nezam-Mafi, chairman of the Iran-Switzerland Chamber of Commerce and Eurasia region director of Swiss mill-maker Buehler AG.
Nevertheless, speakers described Iran as a "virgin market" of sophisticated consumers ready for business with the West.
"Be brave," urged Ali Amiri of ACL Asset Management, an Iran-focused investment firm. "You've been to wilder places: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, South Africa, Nigeria. If you can bear those places, Iran is a walk in the park."