Cultural tips on doing business in Iran
29 March 2018
It has been cut off for nearly 40 years but by the looks of it Iran is back in business and looking westwards for partners.
Thanks to the JCPOA, a.k.a. the Iran Nuclear Deal, sanctions have been lifted and the country is implementing its 2025 Vision for growth through foreign investment and ambitious plans to develop its economy.
In a market where “Made in Britain” still very much carries gravitas, Iran offers massive opportunities for UK export, potentially even eclipsing its neighbours in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, simply put, is a market set to explode. However, for those looking to capitalise on this opportunity, there are some things you really need to understand on a cultural level before you jump on the next plane to Tehran. Here’s just a few…
Iranians are notorious for not answering emails. If you plan to make appointments to meet with prospects, pick up the phone. An email from a stranger will always be lowest priority as it is abstract; if you speak to people you become tangible through the personal interaction and will thereby get results.
Dress to impress
Books tend to be judged by their covers in Iran. So make sure you dress well when in the country. Men should wear shirts, suits and polished shoes but not ties as they are not the norm. Colours should be low key. Women should wear modest and conservative clothing that covers arms, legs and hair. When in public women must cover some of their hair with a shawl or scarf.
Times to Avoid
Remember there are certain times of the year where business pretty much comes to a standstill or at least slows down. These notably include Ramazan, the two Islamic Eids, Nowruz (Persian New Year) and certain holy days such as Ashura.
When meeting someone in a business or official context for the first time it can be very formal. Gifts may be exchanged, presentations made and photos may even be taken. A sense of ceremony is given to proceedings which can catch many foreigners out.
Be aware that some Iranians will not shake hands with the other gender. In such cases simply place your hand on your heart, smile and give a very slight bow of respect.
Business is personal in Iran. Many businesses are family owned and run. Even within government, officials usually work within networks of friends and associates. Building a relationship with your Iranian counterpart(s) is critical. The first meeting should be solely focused on getting to know each other. Once a relationship has been established you can safely move on to business matters.
Time is fluid
Try and make business meetings for mid-morning. This gives people time to deal with traffic and it is also a time when they tend to be at their most engaged. Although punctuality in Iran is rare, it will be expected of you. If you are doing business with government officials be prepared to be kept waiting. Be patient and courteous.
Your success in any negotiation will be defined by your aptitude to build rapport and a personal relationship combined with a clearly outlined and well-presented business plan or proposal. Iranians enjoy haggling and getting concessions so be prepared for long negotiations including lots of going around in circles.
IOE&IT Member Neil Payne grew up in the Middle East to a British father and Iranian mother. Having spent 6 years working, studying and travelling the region in his 20s he completed an MA in Middle Eastern studies at SOAS University. He then embarked upon a 15-year career in training and localization. He currently specialises in Iran & Middle East training and consultancy through Commisceo Global.