The Politics of Sanctions Relief in Iran: Three Roles for the Private Sector

The Politics of Sanctions Relief in Iran: Three Roles for the Private Sector

As politicians and analysts consider the wisdom of offering Iran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on the country’s nuclear program, a key stakeholder group remains unaccounted for in the debate – the private sector.

Iran’s private sector stands to gain the most from sanctions relief, and they are uniquely positioned to advance the agenda of normalization through their interactions with both domestic and international business people. Corporate leaders are poised to play three vital roles— interlocutors, stewards, and creators—without which the long awaited nuclear deal will not successfully improve the economic situation in Iran in the way many Iranians anticipate. Policymakers must take account of the relationship between sanctions relief and private sector leadership for the deal to have its much-awaited impact.

In the aftermath of a deal, Iran’s private sector business leaders will be the ideal actors to pick up where the diplomats leave off. These individuals, with global outlooks and ambitions, have already begun reaching out to their peers in the West. And while this outreach is primarily about securing new investment and business opportunities for themselves, it also offers an opportunity to present Iran in a new light, and undo the effects of political vilification and cultural misconception. 

The notion of “business diplomacy” has emerged in the last decade as a serious topic of strategic thought, suggesting that the business executive can serve as a special kind of “ambassador.” And in the transition from high-stakes diplomacy to the “business as usual” mentality expected from a détente between Iran and the West, business diplomacy is the essential intermediate step. 

But in order to take on this role, Iran’s private sector business leaders will need a place at the table.  They must be welcome to visit Western countries much the same way American and European trade delegations have begun visiting Iran. Sanctions, stigma, and arcane visa policies should not prevent an Iranian CEO from coming to London, Paris, or New York to discuss his country and his company in the hope of finding an investor or partner. On the contrary, this should be welcomed as a necessary and productive kind of engagement.  

If Iran’s private sector business leaders can consolidate their economic position on the back of foreign investment and trade, they will be able to take on a vital role as stewards of a nuclear deal.  

For the average Iranian, the nuclear deal has one fundamental promise: greater prosperity. The mechanism embraced by the United States and its allies of using sanctions as a coercive policy tool has had the effect of conditioning Iranians in an almost Pavlovian way— geopolitical strife begets economic pain. Consequently, the signal of political accord and the “relief” of sanctions seems to be triggering the expectation of the relief of this economic pain, and even that of economic reward. Indeed, as opinion polls suggest, President Rouhani’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian public hinges on his rebuilding of the economy.  

But the rollback of sanctions will not bring about relief unless it translates directly into an increased flow of goods, services, and capital into Iran. Following the change in the Iran regulatory environment, only private sector companies will be able to establish the flows necessary for economic growth— whether to introduce vital pharmaceuticals, the latest fashions, or investment funds into the country.

Iran’s private sector is uniquely positioned to create value for Iran’s long-term development. Value creation, as a concept of management, entails the proper treatment of shareholders, employees, and customers as part of corporate social responsibility. When value creation is more than the policy of a single business, and instead reflects the ethos of a whole industry or economic sector, private enterprise can take on a true social significance.

In this sense, Iran’s private sector firms, if properly empowered, can serve as the anchor for Iranian civil society. Through a commitment to corporate citizenship, companies can become advocates for the citizenry within the context of Iranian political economy.

In the current situation, the Iranian state and private enterprise compete for access to limited resources and capital. Livelihoods are either tied to a state affiliate or to a private concern Knowing this, class and cultural divisions are exacerbated by economic antagonism. Issues of public health, environmental degradation, educational policy, and legal protection will not be effectively addressed.

The Islamic Republic’s support for privatization has been surprisingly persistent, if unfulfilled. The technocrats are well aware that state owned enterprises struggle to generate economic gains of real value.

The Rouhani administration is committed to privatization and to the success of the non-governmental sector in Iran. The aim is to give new actors a voice in the wider arena of public affairs.  

This commitment has been signaled since the early days of the administration's tenure, and in Rouhani's cabinet’s engagement of the current crop of Iran’s private sector business leaders. The logic is clear. The Iranian state ought to focus on security and governance, and rent seeking should be formalized through taxation. 

But in the history of modern Iran, and especially in the age of globalization, economic policy has never been a national prerogative.

The imposition of sanctions and their aftermath are testament to this fact. As key actors in Iran try to turn over a new leaf, it is up to the P5+1 to empower Iran’s private sector as interlocutors, stewards, and creators, and thereby ensure that policy treats such empowerment not as an afterthought, but as an intended effect of a nuclear deal. Sanctions relief ought not to be seen as merely the quid-pro-quo of any final nuclear agreement. It is truly the sine-qua-non of everything promised by the ongoing détente. 



Photo Credit: AP Photo/Michael Euler

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