“We must put UK high on business agenda in Iran”

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Simon Walker at the reopening of British Embassy in Iran

IoD director general Simon Walker joined foreign secretary Philip Hammond on a visit to Iran and saw real opportunity for UK businesses in the country

Simon Walker IoD director generalI’ve just returned from my trip to Iran with the foreign secretary Philip Hammond and other business leaders. It was a fascinating visit. Philip Hammond’s key role was to reopen the embassy and meet President Rouhani. Our mission, which began pre-5am on Sunday was to focus on building bridges with Iran’s business and political communities.

My visa was eventually issued at Dubai airport. I was a bit jittery because everyone else’s went through and I was called out in a small dark room; it turned out my NZ passport only has two months and three weeks to go and Iran likes you to have 3 months, at least. But this was waived… clearly Iranian officialdom was in mellow mood.

With the second largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa (after Saudi Arabia) one might have expected more physically developed structures than we saw. Our Emirates plane was the only non-Iranian airplane in the loneliest airport I’ve ever seen. Imam Khomeini Airport is in desert 50km away from Tehran. Though there must be aeroplanes landing and taking off we didn’t see them. This was the first sign of the dearth of overt economic activity.

Heading into the city, we saw a sequence of half-finished buildings. The very physicality of the city shows the obvious effects of a decade of sanctions. Spare parts and equipment are needed to finish the uncompleted constructions. This should change when sanctions are lifted early next year, following the nuclear agreement that precipitated our trade delegation and the opening of the embassy.

But the potential in Iran is colossal. When meeting ministers and officials over the course of our visit, it was clear we were there partly to foster goodwill but also to set out our stall – to show what is on offer in Britain.

I set out the IoD’s ability to deliver excellence in professional development, director training and the encouragement of entrepreneurialism. There was clear interest in what the IoD could deliver. But there will be even more enthusiasm for the business IoD members can bring.

The dilapidation of Tehran’s buildings, the lack of shops, restaurants, billboards, brands – any commercial buzz: it all reflects real opportunity. The (elderly, often battered) cars that congest the streets of Tehran are largely French. Germany and Austria have already sent similar (and larger) trade missions. There will be a further, larger UK delegation later this year and IoD members with an interest in it should let me know.

There is a willingness to put aside past disagreement and look to the future. British business and investment in Iran can be a powerful agent of positive change. But we need to help get the UK high on Iran’s business agenda as soon as sanctions are lifted.

About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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