Over nearly three decades since the Revolution, Iranian businesses and businessmen through a number of personal and professional lapses have built up a shoddy and devious reputation abroad that has not been readily brought out by the domestic media.
Despite the Government’s mollycoddling approach to Iranian companies, the plain but brutal fact is that few Iranian businessmen are really interested in doing business with overseas individuals and entities even when the opportunities come knocking on their very doors!
There is a kind of ubiquitous complacency and self-satisfaction with the way things are that even when there are genuine business inquiries from abroad, few businessmen or their staff will take the trouble to respond in a meaningful way.
To the foreign business entrepreneur, Iran appears to be a closed society because their consulates abroad will not easily give addresses or respond to genuine business inquiries. Within Iran itself, Iranian businessmen will not enter into any contractual arrangements with foreigners to be routed via the banking system but will insist on having knowledge and prior dealings with their prospective partners or at least a formal introduction.
As a consequence, hundreds of business letters from abroad go unanswered simply because foreign partners who have the potential to trade with Iran are not known to the Iranian businessman.
Then again, the kind of office culture that is present in Iranian companies seeks to procrastinate even in replying to genuine and motivated inquiries. The standard reply given is that a detailed response will be sent later.
Iranian businesses operating abroad also defy many of the conventions and norms of the foreign country and thereby earn an unsavory reputation or themselves. For instance, many permits and authorizations required for doing business abroad are not obtained with the result that when an Iranian business is finally indicted and repatriated, its staff and personnel have to face the horrible situation of being stranded in an unfamiliar country with little or no help on hand.
Another malpractice engaged in by Iranian companies abroad is to impose longer working hours and less than standard wages prescribed by the host country’s laws. When finally this malpractice leads to litigation, Iranian companies lose a lot of money and public reputations as well!
To touch a more sensitive chord, it is an open secret that there is widespread dishonesty in Iranian enterprises operating abroad. A common and pernicious habit is that Iranian businessmen will take loans from their foreign partners and not repay them on the ground of financial difficulty. Similarly, when overseas partners extend lavish hospitality to their Iranian friends, the latter never respond in any way – citing the same ground.
Foreigners are baffled to note that once the Iranian partner company is repatriated, there is no way to obtain further contact with it. The Iranian firm will simply turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to all the subsequent telephone calls and fax messages sent by their erstwhile foreign partners!
And if there are any loans outstanding, there is little the foreign partners can do since litigation through the Iranian courts is a nightmarish experience. This lack of ethics is the dominant feature of Iranian businesses today.
Another anomaly in Iranian business today, particularly in the export sector, is that generally all the best goods made in Iran go to North America and Europe while the rest of the world gets shoddy Iranian goods even when the prices paid are comparable.
This means that most Iranian businessmen learn to deal with the lower classes of society in Asian and African countries. These poor people have a strong affinity with Iran and Iranian culture and are willing to pay higher prices for Iranian goods even if they are inferior to those exported to the western countries.
This is one reason why Iranian business dealings with Third World countries are murky and not quite above board. Moreover, Iranian companies do not advertise their goods in poor countries but even then Iranian goods are publicized through word of mouth. Since Iranian goods are not advertised the through the mainstream media, a sordid system of multiple pricing has emerged in these countries that dupes the unsuspecting proletariat.
In many Third World countries, business dealings entered into by Iranian individuals and entities are like “hit and run” accidents as Iranian businessmen have no wish to establish long-lasting or permanent relationships. Simply put, Iranian businessmen want to avoid responsibility toward the less fortunate countries who are indeed Iran’s true friends!
Coming back to Iran, it is indeed a sad truism to observe that Iranian staff employed by foreign consulates cannot or will not answer genuine business inquiries about potential foreign business partners who wish to trade with Iran. There is a fatal inertia, a smug and comfortable atmosphere in these places that prevents any correspondence, be it important or even critical for domestic parties.
Similarly, the few business and commercial libraries that are present in urban areas are woefully short of the latest updated information that could be of any real use to potential importers from abroad.
The staff manning these libraries is apathetic and badly informed about the resources that are available in these centers. There seems to be a ubiquitous desire to avoid work and this leads to much rudeness and unpleasant behavior on the staff’s part.
On the banking level, most staff members employed in the international departments of Iranian banks do not know much about the rudiments of international trade. This leads to confusion and delay in all transactions until senior officers intervene to sort matters out. Hardly anyone knows any foreign language and this lacuna can create grave problems in daily banking operations.
It is also true that Iranian banks will engage in lengthy correspondence to recover minute and insignificant amounts that do not even cover the cost of the correspondence. These lapses give Iranian banks a beggarly image even though they are generally well capitalized.
Iranian trade with foreign partners is also plagued with other small irritants. Inevitably, Iranian businessmen will request discounts in every transaction even if such concessions would badly erode their partners’ profitability.
There is also a subtle, but unsaid, desire to secure freebies and small advantages at the expense of the overseas partners. Moreover, much against international practice, Iranian businessmen will not pay for commercial samples but will want them free before they proceed ahead with any deal.
Another irritant facing foreign businessmen who come to Iran to trade is that telephone, fax and email charges soar if they are availed through a public cyber cafe. Tips and baksheesh are demanded often and unashamedly. Far more serious than these irritants, is the lack of a dedicated and reliable mail forwarding service offered by the Post Office.
This is a critical facility for many foreign, if not, local businessmen and its importance cannot be stressed adequately. Without a proper mail forwarding service, both domestic and foreign firms stand to lose significantly if their mail is not forwarded to new addresses safely and on time.