9 Must-Read Books For Doing Business in Iran
Getting ready for business in Iran won’t be as simple as picking up the latest business bestseller at an airport bookstore. There are essentially no quality English-language books specifically about doing business in Iran
Emerging markets best practice suggests that to truly understand Iran’s market, a businesss leader will require fluency in matters of economy, politics, society, and culture. In these areas, the business journalism in the pages of Bloomberg Businessweek or The Economist lacks depth, and the off-the-shelf market research reports of firms like BMI and Euromonitor lack context.
Fortunately, economists, political scientists and other academics have studied Iran with great diligence. Although their books and writings are not specific to commercial considerations, they nonetheless contain important lessons and insights for any business leader devising an Iran strategy.
Below is a list of nine books that every businessperson should read before pursuing business in Iran.
1. A History of Modern Iran, Ervand Abrahamian, Cambridge University Press, 2008
Abrahamian’s relatively short and accessible text is a staple of undergraduate courses that deal with Iranian history or political science. His book gives a well-researched and balanced introduction to the last century of Iranian history. Anyone seeking to invest or work in Iran ought to consider a basic grasp of the country’s history as a prerequisite. Most analysis on Iran tends to fixate on the 1979 Islamic Revolution as the key historical event that explains Iran’s current position. But as Abrahamian’s astute history shows, 1979 was merely the culmination of several political, economic, and social trends. And by the same token, the present situation in Iran has to be understood within the bounds of decades-long trajectories which are helpfully introduced in this book.
2. Iran and the Global Economy: Petro Populism, Islam and Economic Sanctions, Eds. Parvin Alizadeh and Hassan Hakimian, Routledge, 2014
An understanding of Iran’s economy will be vital for all businesspeople seeking to engage opportunities in the country. Economists tend to publish findings in papers, making it difficult for non-academics to identify the key articles with the most valuable insights. Thankfully, UK-based economists Alizadeh and Hakimian edited this volume of essays covering various aspects of Iran’s economy. Published in 2014, the collected essays include a nod to future international engagement for Iran’s economy. Subsequent work by these economists and their peers will have expanded on these issues in light of recent developments, but this collection offers a compelling primer into some key matters such as banking regulation, privatization, oil revenues, and industrial capacity.
3. Iran's Struggle for Economic Independence: Reform and Counter-Reform in the Post-Revolutionary Era, Evaleila Pesaran, Routledge, 2013
Though it predates the election of President Hassan Rouhani, whom many see as a strong advocate for further liberalization of the economy, Pesaran’s book is a compelling introduction into the high-stakes debate that has developed in Iran about economic reforms. Her analysis explores how, in Iran, the simple idea of foreign direct investment (FDI) is tied to all sorts of historical and political contingencies. For business leaders seeking to pursue FDI in Iran, this book will help put their intentions in context.
4. Business Politics in the Middle East, Eds. Steffan Hertog, Giacomo Luciani, and Marc Valeri, Hurst, 2013
It will be important for business leaders devising strategy for Iran to understand broader regional trends. The economic relationships between Iran and its neighbors are complex, and understanding trends across the region should influence how companies handle risk as it pertains to Iran. This would be one reason to read Business Politics in the Middle East. But in particular, the book includes an essay by Kevan Harris, who is perhaps the most exciting thinker on Iranian political economy today. Though he has yet to write a book on the topic, Harris’ many articles explore the role of the state in Iranian economy, and the capacity for Iran’s current economic and political systems to accommodate the kind of capitalistic activities that multinational corporations and foreign investors are mulling. His use of data from the Tehran Stock Exchange to more accurately define the governance and ownership of Iran’s largest corporations reveals the complexity of determining what constitutes a state owned enterprise (SOE) in Iran. This kind of data will be fundamental to properly accounting for legal, political, and economic risk when it comes to investment and partnership targeting in Iran.
5. Bazaar and State in Iran, Arang Keshavaziran, Cambridge University Press, 2009
Keshavarzian is a sociologist by training and his book is very much academic in purpose and tone. It is a rare example of a book on modern Iran with a singular focus—in this case the seemingly timeless institution of the bazaar. As Keshavarzian’s book explains, the bazaar is no longer as powerful as it once was. But at its height Iran’s merchant class, the bazaaris, epitomized the constructive role that commercial enterprise can play in Iranian society. Business leaders today could learn from the example of collaboration, network-building, and civil society engagement that the bazaar offers. Indeed, the financial might of the bazaar was bolstered by its particular commitment to its stakeholders—owners, employees, and customers. Iranian industries, and their international partners, will find the greatest success if they take a similar approach, one devoted to value creation over profit hunting.
6. Iran's Natural Gas Industry in the Post-Revolutionary Period: Optimism, Skepticism, and Potential, Elham Hassanzadeh, Oxford University Press, 2014
The natural gas industry will no doubt be a major target for investment and development in a post-sanctions environment. But that is not the reason that Hassanzadeh’s book is worth mentioning. Her book is a model example of a deep, interdisciplinary study of a major industry in Iran. The way she weaves political and economic history into the technical discussion of the gas industry and its development prospects should be emulated. For a businessperson trying to develop an understanding of what good market intelligence and contextual knowledge looks like, Hassazadeh provides one of the best examples. Indeed, her “unique methodological approach, presenting a multidisciplinary study of the various historical, political, and economic variables” was a deliberate innovation in the work.
7. Negotiating With Iran, John Limbert, United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009
John Limbert is famous for being one of the hostages taken in the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Despite that unfortunate experience—or perhaps because of it—he has followed his long diplomatic career with a turn as an academic focusing on Iran. These days, the best advice holds that emerging market strategy must take into account cultural awareness to complement market intelligence. Knowing how to operate in a market necessarily requires knowledge about how to deal with local actors. Limbert makes the argument for cultural awareness with a particular focus on the progress of US-Iran political relations, but many of his insights also have a relevance to the realization of commercial relations between Iranian and Western firms. In particular, Limbert outlines “Fourteen Steps to Success” for negotiating with Iranians, many of which are superb advice for business negotiations. Steps such as “talking to the right people” and “choosing intermediaries with care” should not be taken lightly. One might worry that Limbert, as an American, would be poorly positioned to comment on Iranian culture. But having lived and taught in Iran for many years prior to the 1979 revolution, leaving him with excellent Persian language skills, Limbert is an excellent guide to these questions for a foreign audience.
8. Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic, Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett, Picador, 2014
The Leveretts, a husband and wife team with experience as national security analysts in the Bush and Clinton administrations, offer suggestions for moving beyond the thirty years of distrust between the United States and Iran. They argue that negotiation between the West and Iran is the only way to address longstanding political and security concerns. In exploring this topic, the book becomes particularly useful for understanding many of the contemporary dynamics within Iran’s political arena today, and by extension wider society itself. Although not directly concerned with business, the book aims to make the reader understand the society of contemporary Iran through an analytical-political lens. Similarly to Limbert’s book, Going to Tehran also aims to give the reader a glimpse of how the “Iranian”—in this case the political actor— sees himself in the wider global and regional context. Many of the issues afflicting Iran’s relationships with an array of countries can be neatly summed up in the writings of the Leverett duo.
9. The Strangling of Persia, Morgan Shuster, Mage, 2006
Morgan Shuster was an American banker who was invited to Iran in 1911 to serve as Treasurer-General and to put the finances of the newly formed Persian constitutional monarchy in order. His efforts were stymied, however, by the competition between the British and Russian Empires, which had split Iran into two spheres of influence in a 1907 convention, only to continue meddling in domestic politics as they competed for power. Shuster’s sympathy was with the Iranian people, who were trying to establish democratic institutions with little success. Ousted from Tehran by the Russians, Shuster wrote his book to expose how the British and Russians continually denied the Iranian right to self-determination. From Shuster’s time until today, Iranians have remained sensitive to the notion that true national independence has been denied by great power politics. The recent experience of sanctions has only heightened this sentiment. As foreign firms seek to enter Iran, it would behoove business leaders to develop an awareness of this perception as many of Shuster’s observations continue to ring true today.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is Executive Editor of Bourse & Bazaar