With Sanctions Eased, What Kind Of Trade Can Companies Do With Iran?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now let's hear from someone working overtime to figure out what kind of business U.S. companies can do with Iran now that international sanctions have been eased. Even as other countries relax the rules, there are still U.S. trade laws on the books aimed at pressuring Iran on human rights and links to terror. American companies can now import things like pistachios and carpets, but many are eager for more opportunities. And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, they're turning to their lawyers for answers.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Zachary Brez is a sanctions and international risk lawyer at Ropes and Gray in New York. He says he's been swamped with calls since the nuclear deal lifted U.N. economic sanctions against Iran last weekend.
ZACHARY BREZ: Since Saturday, it's been a little nuts.
NORTHAM: Brez's phone lines have been lit up with clients asking about the possibility of doing business in Iran.
BREZ: On Tuesday, I was on the phone with clients from 8 a.m. through 11 p.m., advising on the issues, thinking about next steps, thinking about how it's going to impact their business and trying to give them some guidance on where to go from here.
NORTHAM: The problem is that American companies still face more restrictions on trade with Iran than other countries. That's because of U.S. sanctions still in place, and the government will go after companies violating those sanctions. But the Treasury Department did loosen some restrictions on what U.S. companies can do through foreign subsidiaries. Brez is fielding calls from an array of industries.
BREZ: Medical device commodities, pharma, retail, shipping, you name it.
NORTHAM: Brez says navigating the sanctions can be tricky. For example, any Iranian employee or a vendor, even a customs officer, could be on the list of banned individuals, a list that's updated by the Treasury Department every night.
BREZ: And that list reflects who you can and cannot do business with. And while over the weekend some 200 names were removed from it, there are still another 5,000 names that are on it.
NORTHAM: There are other challenges in dealing with Iran. Corruption is endemic, U.N. sanctions could snap back if Iran defaults on its nuclear agreement, and European and Asian companies face fewer restrictions, giving them an edge. It makes you wonder if doing business in Iran is worth it.
BREZ: That's literally the million dollar question. Iran, at least anecdotally, is a country with Western tastes for the arts, for entertainment, for retail with a young population that has money to spend. Some consider it maybe the last untapped developing economy.
NORTHAM: Brez tells clients they better make sure any venture is going to be worth the money.
BREZ: There's a lot of ways to have a foot fault, and so I often say to clients, look, there's a lot of ways you're going to mess this up, lot of ways you get can into trouble. It's not worth doing it for $10,000.
NORTHAM: Brez says some clients will tell him if there's even a 1 percent chance they'll get in trouble, they won't do it.
BREZ: I've had other clients who say, it's just as risky for me to do business in Illinois or in New Jersey, I might as well do business in all the markets in the world where I've got a chance to make a buck.
NORTHAM: Brez says those business folks are obviously more willing to take a risk than the lawyers who advise them. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.