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Iran becoming oasis for business

By Sandro Contenta
The Toronto Star
October 10, 1999

TEHRAN - Canadian business is showing little interest in Iran, but that hasn't stopped Iranians from showing a big interest in Canada.

Only six Canadian companies attended a massive international trade fair here that ended yesterday. It showcased the wares of hundreds of foreign firms vying to break into a market of 70 million people that seems poised to end years of isolation.

''My most difficult job is to get Canadian companies to just come here for the first time, because of the generally uninformed view of Iran in the United States and Canada,'' said Andrew Shisko, senior trade commissioner at the Canadian Embassy here.

''Iran is perceived as mullahs, women in chadors and the (Islamic) revolution of 20 years ago,'' Shisko said. Overlooked is Iran's mighty industrial base - the largest zinc deposits in the world, the second-largest copper deposits and the fourth-largest oil reserves.

Half its population is under 21 and well-educated. With 1 million young people entering the workforce every year, Iran must expand its economy, Shisko said. It's building the infrastructure for a high-tech economy, expanding the private sector and looking to strike deals with foreign companies, he added.

Politically, reformers pushing for more democracy seem poised to make gains in parliamentary elections next February.

''There's a window of opportunity for Canadian companies. It's going to be more difficult when the Americans come in,'' Shisko said. Iranian and American officials are holding ''discussions behind the scenes'' on ending the U.S. trade embargo imposed 20 years ago after Iranian students held hostages at the American embassy for 444 days, he added.

Last year, Canada exported $500 million worth of goods to Iran - two-thirds of that in wheat sales, making Iran Canada's biggest buyer of wheat. Iran sold Canada $200 million worth of goods.

The six Canadian booths at the week-long fair, including Nortel, Kanata's Newbridge Networks Corp. and Mississauga's Canadian Bearings, were squeezed into a corner of the pavilion dominated by British companies. Japan had a whole pavilion to itself, filled with its biggest manufacturers.

Still, the Canadian kiosks were a big hit with the thousands of Iranians who filed through the fairgrounds.

''It's unbelievable the number of people who come here and say, 'I want to emigrate to Canada. Can you give me a job?' '' said Thomas Cherry, network engineer with Montreal-based CTI Datacom Inc.

Next to Cherry's booth, Newbridge's George Thomas had just come out of a meeting with Iran's deputy trade minister. Giants like Nortel and Ericsson are already laying the infrastructure - fibre optic cables, for example - that will allow Iran to go on line in a big way, he said.

Thomas believes his company has an edge in landing the Iranian contract over much bigger Nortel. Almost all of Newbridge's products are manufactured in Canada, while 60 per cent of Nortel's are made in the United States, Thomas said.

The U.S. trade embargo prohibits technology with more than a certain level of U.S. content to be sold to Iran. In four days, Thomas said, he had about 30 Iranians ask him for a job in Canada. Engineers will be more than welcome to apply, Thomas said he told them.

''They have the idea that Canada is a paradise, so everyone is jumping to get there,'' said Bijan Vahid Kassiri, managing director of the recently opened Canadian Bearings Ltd. office in Tehran. It sells $120 million a year in industrial equipment in Canada and is owned by an Iranian-Canadian.

Kassiri left Iran 17 years ago to live in Canada and has now returned. ''Iran has changed a lot. It's on the right path,'' he said.


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