President Hassan Rouhani will be the first Iranian leader in a decade to visit the World Economic Forum in Davos next week, when he’ll have a chance to turn his nuclear diplomacy into deals that can boost the economy.
Rouhani, 65, will be accompanied in the Swiss city by his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in Geneva last November, according to an official program announced today. They’ll be looking to attract investment and help an economy hurt by U.S. and European Union sanctions that will be eased under the agreement, due to take force two days before Davos starts.
“Rouhani wants to create the perception that Iran is now open to business,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is the place to shake hands and cut deals.”
The corridors of Davos will be packed with potential new business partners -- and a few old foes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among the most outspoken critics of the Geneva accord, will also be there. Netanyahu has called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and urged the world to be wary of his “charm offensive.”
The Israeli premier has said that only the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program would be acceptable, and that he’s ready to authorize force to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.
Rouhani took office in August after winning election on a pledge to end the country’s global isolation under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his first 100 days he broke taboos by speaking on the phone with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, as well as reaching the Geneva accord.
“What Rouhani is doing is very much softening Iran’s image,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It’s a very conciliatory message, and he’ll be booking as many meetings as he can with corporate leaders.”
Hundreds of executives, bankers and policy makers flock to Davos each year for the World Economic Forum. This year’s four-day event starts Jan. 22 under the theme, “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.”
Rouhani is due to address the plenary on Jan. 23 during a session called “Iran in the World.” The next day, Zarif is to take part in a panel discussion titled, “The End Game for the Middle East.”
The Iranian president’s address in Davos will be “very significant,” Deputy Oil Minister Akbar Torkan told reporters on the sidelines of a Jan. 13 oil exhibition on the Persian Gulf island of Kish. “The world today will encounter Iran’s brave and broad cooperation with the international arena.”
The last time Iran sent a leader to Davos was in 2004, when then-President Mohammad Khatami told participants that “true partnership calls for genuine dialogue.” Khatami attended again in 2007 after he left office, and Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, went in 2010.
U.S. officials have said the sanctions relief available to Iran under the Geneva accord could be worth as much as $7 billion.
Optimism that an opening is imminent has sent the Tehran stock exchange up 7.5 percent since the nuclear deal was signed on Nov. 24. While daily trading equals only about 22 seconds worth of stock transactions in the U.S., the benchmark index has soared 130 percent in the year through Jan. 15.
Rouhani is looking to give international corporations an incentive to come to Iran, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
“European businesses are extremely eager to get back into Iran, Parsi said. ‘‘They don’t want to violate sanctions or policy, but there’s an agreement that there’s a need to shift the policy.”
Carmaker Renault SA attended an auto industry fair in Tehran last month. Peugeot SA also had a share of a market worth almost $20 billion before it was squeezed by sanctions.
Rouhani’s presence will also bolster his standing inside Iran against hardliners wary of rapprochement with the West, according to Nasser Hadian, professor of international relations at Tehran University.
“People will appreciate the fact that he is not an outcast, he’s not promoting some radical ideas,” Hadian said. “This positive perception outside Iran will impact domestic audiences, too.”