The Iranian government’s efforts to create economic opportunities have repeatedly been undermined by Iran’s political establishment. And one of the worst examples is the 1000-day long imprisonment of Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi.
It’s always difficult to keep up with political and economic upheaval in Iran, and more so at the moment. But two recent events in particular vividly highlight the paradoxes Iran’s business community face. On July 16, Tehran's Espinas Palace Hotel hosted a symposium — “A Thought and Business Leaders Gathering on Iran’s Future Business Opportunities” — bringing together foreign delegations and members of Tehran’s business community to discuss opportunities for economic collaboration and business ventures. Attended by Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the event, which was covered by Iranian media, aimed to showcase President Rouhani’s resolve and determination to expand Iran’s economic horizons. However, few among the attendees had any doubt about the realities and implications of economic collaboration with Iran. They know that anyone embarking on a business venture in the Islamic Republic has more to fear from Iran’s security apparatus and the multitude of intelligence agencies than from sanctions imposed by the United States.
The sad reality is when President Rouhani’s ministers have had a genuine opportunity to open Iran’s economy to private entrepreneurship and foreign investment, they have not been able to grasp it. Their silence and inaction when it comes to cases such as Namazi’s has already ruined Iran’s chances and opportunities to significantly improve the economy.
The other notable date was July 9, which marked the 1000th day since Siamak Namazi’s arrest in October 2015. In September, in the days after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed, Namazi was barred from leaving Iran after a visit with his family in Tehran. Ominously, a few weeks later, the Daily Beast ran an article targeting the Namazi family, presenting them as the intellectual architects of the JCPOA and outlining how the family was poised to make millions of dollars in profits from it. Namazi was then arrested in October 2015 and charged with espionage.
Mizan Online, Iran’s judiciary media outlet, ran a short clip of the first hours of Namazi’s arrest as he was ordered to remove his wallet and to place his identification cards on a conference table next to the security officers. Mizan denounced him as the bridge between infamous elements in the Iranian government and foreigners. Ironically, Siamak Namazi was actually an outspoken critic of internationally-imposed sanctions on Iran and had published research outlining their negative impacts on Iran’s healthcare system and public access to medication and medical supplies. He spent weeks of his own personal time on these projects. The report emerging from his research, which he presented to the Wilson Center in Washington DC and which was featured in the New York Times, forms the definitive document on the negative impact of sanctions on humanitarian trade with Iran. His arrest sent shockwaves across the Iranian in diaspora and the western business community.
A Dream Shared by Many — But Not by All
“The arrest of Siamak and other dual nationals has undermined the willingness of thousands of Iranian diaspora members to help the development of the country,” says Bijan Khajehour, a managing partner of Atieh International and a relative of Namazi. He, like thousands of skilled Iranians, have worked and dreamed of an Iran open to the international community and to business collaboration. But this dream was not shared by the members of the ruling elite in the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly hardcore conservatives and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
It is true that the Iranian government needed Namazi’s compassion and expertise to gain an upper hand in negotiations by persuading the world of the cruel impact of the sanctions. However, when an international agreement was achieved, other elements of the political establishment such as the IRGC and the judiciary made sure individuals like Siamak Namazi were no longer welcome. They wanted to make sure their hold on economic affairs would remain firm. This meant the JCPOA’s economic opportunities and benefits would remain limited to the ruling class and to their trusted associates. When Namazi’s 80-year-old father Baquer was arrested upon arrival in Tehran — he had traveled there to help his son — the point became crystal clear. There was no place at the table for ordinary Iranians, particularly those with connections abroad.
President Rouhani’s administration paid a heavy price for its idleness in the Namazis’ case. Hazhir Rahmandad, a MIT professor and a friend of Siamak Namazi, told Iranwire: “Siamak’s arrest sent the signal that those building bridges between Iranians outside the country and those in Iran can be arbitrarily targeted”. Many in the Iranian diaspora, discouraged by Namazi’s arrest, abandoned any plan for business activities or investments in Iran. The arrest also led many foreign businesses to think twice before entering Iran’s markets. Bijan Khajehour says that, “because of his previous work as a consultant, many company representatives, reporters and other stakeholders know him well and it is clear that his arrest would have had a deeper negative impact on many investors ... those people who arrested Siamak wanted to limit the presence of western companies and organizations in Iran, thinking that this way they will limit western influence.”
Rouhani: No Credibility
Almost three years later, those very people court any western company that is willing to ignore the United States-imposed sanctions to work in Iran. One wonders how the Islamic Republic as a political regime was planning to benefit from the JCPOA as it killed hundreds of potential business ventures with one hasty arrest.
As foreign ambassadors, Iranian businessmen and President Rouhani’s associates gathered in Espinas Palace Hotel in Tehran to discuss future economic opportunities in Iran, the Namazis’ case, alongside other dual nationals imprisoned in Tehran, serves as a reminder of President Rouhani’s lack of credibility. It is a common understanding that the Iranian government cannot guarantee businessmen’s safety or investors’ security. If the reasons for Siamak Namazi’s imprisonment are open to discussion, its impact is not. Khajehour, for one, is in no doubt. “The impact was and is that President Rouhani’s administration was discredited on the international stage”. And the administration’s continued silence regarding Siamak and Baquer Namazis’ cases and its inability to address concerns caused more broadly by the arrests of Iranian dual nationals mean only one thing: No one can feel safe building partnerships with Iranian businesses.
As for Siamak and his ailing father, there is no prospect of immediate release. And since Siamak Namazi is a humanitarian businessman — and not a radical activist or journalist — many have chosen to be quiet, regarding his fate as a case of bad luck. Hazhir evaluates the Iranian diaspora’s overall response as “rather muted.” He summarizes the reason: “Siamak was not a revolutionary and his more nuanced approach to improving Iran did not inspire strong emotional support among many in the diaspora”. Neither side — the diaspora nor the regime — seems to have deep sympathies for a quiet, joyful man who wanted to work toward a better world. Yet both sides seem more eager to maintain the paradoxes rather than challenging them. In the meantime, the Namazis suffer in silence while Iranian ministers put on their poker faces and boast to foreigners, inviting them to defy the United States. But still, it’s reasonable to assume that the government may wonder: If it had treated the Namazis differently, would the odds of persuading potential business partners been better?