Czech companies upbeat about business prospects in Iran

A Czech business delegation has visited Iran on a fact-finding mission, the first of its kind in recent decades. Some 20 Czech firms, from machinery companies to pharmaceuticals producers, took part in the trip which could herald future closer cooperation between Iran and the Czech Republic, provided that sanctions imposed on Tehran over its controversial nuclear programme are lifted.

The representatives of some 20 Czech companies participated in the four-day mission to the Islamic Republic of Iran which concluded on Wednesday. Organized by the Czech Republic’s Chamber of Commerce with backing from the country’s foreign affairs and industry and trade ministries, the trip was inspired by similar missions of several other EU member states to Iran earlier this year, says Ilja Mazánek, the head of the Chamber of Commerce’s foreign department.

“The Iranian market is very interesting and attractive despite the restraints, let’s say, the international business community faces right now.

“That’s why this particular business mission, as well as those EU countries’ missions which took place earlier, all focused on testing the ground in order to be ready for further development of relations when the atmosphere becomes appropriate.”

Among the Czech firms that explored potential business opportunities was the pharmaceutical firm Farmak which already exports to Iran but would like to launch licenced production in the country.

Another firm, Technoexport, probed the potential for supplying spare parts for Iranian food processing plants, while the engineering companies Mavel and Unis discussed plans to export machinery equipment for power plants.

Many of these plans for increased cooperation will only materialize if economic and trade sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community over the country’s nuclear programme are lifted. But Ilja Mazánek says Czech firms also want to use existing opportunities as much as possible.

“While respecting and abiding by those regulations, the Czech business community is interested in using to the maximum extent the existing potential provided by the current framework.”

The ground-breaking business mission could, however, herald a new chapter in the relations between Iran and the Czech Republic. The trip was preceded by a visit of Iran’s deputy foreign minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi to Prague last week.

Martin Tlapa,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Mr Takht-Ravanchi told Czech officials he was optimistic about the outcome of the ongoing talks in Geneva between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme. The West wants guarantees that the programme could not give Iran nuclear weapons capacity. Tehran argues that its goals are solely for civil nuclear power production. A deadline for reaching a deal has been set for November.

The Czech delegation was officially headed by deputy foreign minister Martin Tlapa who, among other things, discussed a proposed double taxation agreement with Iranian officials as well as plans for a delegation of the Iranian Industry and Trade Ministry to visit Prague.

Over the phone from Tehran, Mr Tlapa says the new threat of fundamentalist Islamism has put Europe’s relations with Iran into a new light.

“The danger of Islamic terrorism is a new element in our relations with that country for the future. The nuclear talks are crucial for extending business cooperation and we have to respect the sanctions.

“But we hope that progress will be made and there will be a chance to move ahead. It all depends on trust between all the players, but I’m optimistic on that.”

Martin Tlapa also says that officials from the Czech and Iranian foreign ministries are to meet for further debates on the side-lines of an upcoming session of the UN’s general assembly in New York.

I discussed the Czech Republic’s efforts to revive economic ties with Iran with Břetislav Tureček, the head of the Middle East Programme at Prague’s Metropolitan University, and former Czech Radio correspondent in the region.

Břetislav Tureček,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“The mission shows that the Czech Republic has joined other European countries which have sent several high-level delegations to Tehran over the past year, including foreign ministers, not to mention huge economic and industry delegations from France and other countries.

“It seems that the Czech Republic finally got the courage to join this new trend which is a combination of two factors: we see that the international sanctions against Iran have decreased since last November because of a new agreement between the international community and Iran on its nuclear programme.

“Also, after some 15 or 20 years of very low-level contacts and crises in mutual relations between the Czech Republic and Iran, these bilateral relations are improving.”

Last week, when Iranian deputy foreign minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi visited Prague, Czech Foreign Ministry officials were quick to assure that any closer cooperation must be preceded by a nuclear deal between Iran and the West. Mr Takht-Ravanchi was optimistic about the outcome of the Geneva talks – what do you think?

“Naturally, business now can be done only within the framework of the sanctions. I have spoken to several businesspeople keen to revive business with Iran once the sanction regime is lifted.

“At the same time, there is a political dimension of the improvement of relations. We can see that not only the Czechs but also the Iranians are keen to start a new chapter in this regard.

“You mentioned Iran’s deputy foreign minister Takht-Ravanchi’s visit last week. He was received not by his counterpart, a Czech deputy foreign minister but by the minister himself. That shows Prague is really interested in improving the relations, and it’s clearly visible that the Czech Republic is waiting for better times.”

Majid Takht-Ravanchi,  photo: Dragan Tatic / Austrian Foreign Ministry,  CC BY 2.0
Czech firms also hope that the good reputation of Czechoslovak imports in the past will help them re-establish themselves on the Iranian market. Do you think that these past ties could give them some kind of advantage?

“I don’t think so. The Iranians are well aware of what Czechoslovakia was and they know there is now the Czech Republic. They also know our football players, and so on.

“But when it comes to industry and infrastructure projects, they definitely prefer big countries like France and Germany. Countries like these have the real advantage when dealing with Iranian officials and business people. Unfortunately, the Czech Republic has lost a lot of its reputation over the last 20 years.”