Consulting in Iran–the ultimate Trump card?

  • Julie Ahadi

You may have heard–the US has a new president-elect. Many of the implications of Donald Trump’s presidency have yet to reveal themselves, but one interesting question concerns what he plans to do about Iran, both in terms of the all-important nuclear deal and bilateral relations in general (and one could argue these are currently inseparable). Amongst those watching tensely from the side-lines are the relatively few foreign-owned consulting firms who’ve entered Iran in recent years, as there is a very real possibility that the strides they have made–and indeed the advice they have given to other businesses looking to penetrate the market–could be undone by forces outside of their control. Also spooked are the consulting firms who had been thinking about entering Iran, suspecting it might be the next big thing in consulting.

Of course nobody actually knows what will happen and the odd mixture of geo-political alliances brewing from the Trump camp doesn’t help to make the situation any clearer. But according to the conversations we’ve had with consultants working in Iran recently, the public mood is surprisingly upbeat. Trump is viewed, above anything else, as a business-savvy pragmatist, and many in the Iranian business community believe he’ll be unable to resist the huge economic opportunities that opening up relations with Iran will bring. By contrast, they contend, a Clinton administration would have been far more predictable–carefully following protocol, uber-sensitive to the concerns expressed by the international community, etc. Trump may well just do away with all that boloney (semi-direct quote) and get straight to business. We could be about to witness an unprecedented change of policy towards Iran, both in terms of speed and direction.

For a consulting firm to “make it” in Iran, however, what Trump decides to do post January 20th is just one factor amongst a myriad of concerns that will determine whether a firm can be a success in this market. For a start, decades of mistrust and the (ongoing) effects of crippling sanctions will not be forgotten by Iranians overnight. If you happen to be working for an American consulting firm or have a significant part of your business operating in the States, or even sound like you might be an American, the odds are already stacked against you.

And it’s just not your American affiliations–real or imagined–that will hinder your ability to get started. Given the heightened state of political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia right now, you may have to assess whether it’s worth the risk of annoying your Saudi clients by going on a charm offensive with their arch rivals. As for anything you may have going on in Israel, an Iranian-business venture could well mean you’d have to call that a day, not to mention applying for a new passport (you won’t be let in the country if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, or admit to having worked in Israel on your visa application).

In the event that you do make it through this politically-charged minefield, there is also the major obstacle of both language and culture to contend with. Firms such as Roland Berger, which has all the right (or more to the point, none of the wrong) geographical credentials, is a prime example of a big international firm that has engaged with what it means to operate in Iran, and appears well-placed to exploit whatever opportunities arise as a result. At the heart of that is an appreciation that Iran isn’t somewhere consulting firms can make a quick buck. There’s something in Iran called ta’arof. There’s no direct translation or comparable behaviour in Western culture, but think of it as an extreme-sport in good manners. It plays itself out in an exhausting and seemingly never-ending tit-for-tat exchange of pleasantries, esteem, and hospitality as a precursor to every new conversation. But don’t let this fool you; beneath this (sometimes overwhelming) welcoming exterior lies some quite inhospitable business terrain. So, while Trump may yet have a significant bearing on the future of the consulting market in Iran, he is only one of the challenges consulting firms face.

*We are producing a special report about the Iranian consulting market (as well as market sizing information from our global MegaModel) which is available online (for free). Please click here to download this report.