Fabien Ronchail, author of the book Comprendre les Iraniens (Understanding the Iranians) provides some useful advice to help anyone about to negotiate in Iran do so under the best possible conditions.
How do you successfully negotiate with the Iranians?
Following the signature of the nuclear agreement in July 2015, many French companies set off to conquer the Iranian market, seen as a new economic El Dorado. Many of them restricted themselves to an initial prospection mission followed by a single trip out there with the aim of negotiating and signing a cooperation agreement. It has to be admitted today that the results fell short of their expectations. A culture with a rich, 2500-year history and an inward looking society after 35 years of isolation have necessarily led to the Iranians developing their own specific way of living as a society and their own way of approaching relationships to others and of doing business.
A prerequisite to successful negotiations….
learning to gain the trust and confidence of your negotiating partner.
It is vital to understand that cultural differences can mean that people approach relationships in very different ways. A French entrepreneur will take the time to find out as much as possible about the Iranian company with which he hopes to do business. He will begin by placing a certain amount of trust and confidence in his Iranian negotiating partners before even having met them. For his part, an Iranian will use his network to try and find out as much as he can about the French company but also about its representatives, and whether you are directly or indirectly part of his network or not. At the beginning of the discussions, he will be reserved and distrustful of you.
Your partner will need to get to know you, to assess both you as an individual and the company you represent, to decide whether or not you are worthy of his trust and confidence, and to assess whether you possess enough power within your organisation.
In France, we often see negotiations as a process enabling two companies to exchange interests with the representatives of these two companies being only intermediaries, appointed for a given task. In Iran, the interpersonal relationship between the two negotiators is just as important as the two organisations’ specific interests when it comes to finding common ground. Although the country is today opening up to the rest of the world, its economy has been self-contained through more than 35 years of sanctions and embargoes. People have learned to do business only with close friends, relatives and people they trust.
Patience, patience, patience…
During your initial contact, you therefore need to take the time to win the trust and confidence of your negotiating partner, something you won’t earn automatically. This can take time.
We often think that if we can’t find common ground and come to an understanding within a few weeks, then adding several months serves no useful purpose and is just a waste of time. This is true in many countries, but not in Iran. You’ll therefore need lots of patience to gradually build up both a personal and professional relationship with your negotiating partner. What’s important isn’t to organise lots of trips out to Iran, but rather to use each one profitably and to take advantage of every opportunity to forge a close link with your partner, which will then help you to build a strong business relationship.
Above all, never miss an opportunity if one presents itself to spend time with your Iranian contacts outside the meeting room, naturally to take them to dinner if they’re in France or to take them to visit tourist sites near your place of work or your factory, and also to take an interest in Persian culture and ask them about sites to be visited if you’re in Iran. These are wonderful opportunities for speeding up this first stage, one which can seem long but which is very necessary for getting to know one another.
The manager of a French small business I was accompanying to Mashhad in eastern Iran didn’t see any point in staying out there an extra day to visit the neighbouring tourist sites of Tus and Neyshâbur, and more precisely the burial sites of the poets Ferdowsi, Khayyâm and Attâr. He thought it would be a waste of time. But it was during this day that the boss of the Iranian company with which he had started discussions joined him and concrete discussions concerning the future business relationship really got underway.
You should avoid getting down to the nitty-gritty too quickly, by listing your expectations in detail and asking your negotiating partner to state his position on each point. It is quite likely that your negotiating partner simply won’t do this. This should not be interpreted as a lack of interest or a lack of willingness to do business with you. Several meetings will need to be organised over time: sometimes a formal meeting sometimes a more private discussion. You should therefore begin very gradually, by looking to decide the possible areas and fields for which an agreement can be reached. The signature of an initial contract will not be an end in itself, but rather the beginning of both a personal and professional relationship.
It’s no more difficult to negotiate with the Iranians than it is with the Russians, Indians or Chinese. You just need to prepare, to know the boundaries and not exceed them, and to be aware of the different stages involved and the pace to be adopted. To learn more, and to understand the key principles which can help you succeed in your negotiations in Iran, we invite you to read the first professional guide devoted to Persian culture and Iranian society:
Fabien Ronchail, Akteos consultant, intercultural training leader
“Comprendre les Iraniens” (http://www.babelconseil.com/?page_id=67).