TIME

Foreign Companies Strike Hopeful Note at Iranian Oil Fair

As Iran and the West attempt to hammer out a deal over the country's nuclear program, there was a spike in participation by foreign companies at an annual oil & gas expo in Tehran

As Iran’s 19th annual International Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Exhibition drew to an end in Tehran last week, it was hailed as a success by both organizers and participants alike. Though none of the European or American oil giants had taken part, there was a tripling of participation by foreign companies from countries such as Germany, Spain, Canada and Japan as well as the Chinese.

“This was the most successful annual exhibition since the Ahmadinejad government came to office 8 years ago,” said Akbar Nematollahi, the expo director and head of the public relations department of Iran’s Petroleum Ministry. Participation by foreign firms had fallen under the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government. “The number of foreign companies alone went up to around 600 from 195 last year.”

Some western firms that had not participated for years were thrilled with the reaction they saw during the 4-day long expo. “Our experience in this year’s fair was so good that we’ve already decided to come back next year with more staff and a bigger stall,” Joachim Bund, sales manager of the German company Lewa, which produces industrial pump systems, said.

“We’ve seen extreme interest in our products from Iranian companies, both private and state owned,” said Alexandre Chtcherbakov, president of the Canadian Techno and Power Tools Inc., which produces advanced lithium batteries that are used in oilfield drilling. “This is very promising for the future.”

With the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President and the subsequent breakthrough in the nuclear talks in Geneva last year, many think that Iran’s oil and gas sector could soon once again be open to business with Western firms. “The world is realizing that a new government with a reasonable outlook is in power. There is an old hand back at the helm of Iran’s petroleum industry, and the westerners have got the message. Right now not only are we in talks with numerous European firms, but also three major oil companies from the United States have been in touch,” Nematollahi said, declining to name the American companies due to their request to remain unidentified at the present.

“There [are] nearly $90 billion of oil and petrochemical projects available for anyone who wants to participate. Should the sanction problem be solved, Iran’s Petroleum Ministry would welcome major European and American Oil Companies because they have higher technology and better management than Chinese or Indian firms.” Nematollahi added.

At the moment, Western firms can at the most do only limited business with Iran due to sanctions, but those that took part in the Tehran expo say they are positioning themselves for the possibility that things might change. “Focusing on the Iranian market is very important for us because we think with the new government in Iran, the sanctions are near the end,” said Juan Vicente Ortiz, a head engineer of Prematecnica, a Spanish firm which produces gas flares.

Even though the Geneva Interim Nuclear Agreement in November gave hope to a possible negotiated conclusion of Iran’s nuclear case, the hurdle of the sanctions regime means that none of the western firms are willing to commit beyond its bounds. The uncertainty will continue until—and unless—there is a lasting international deal on the country’s nuclear program.

“Iran is a big opportunity for us. We stand to triple our total business, but we are not selling anything to them right now,” said Chtcherbakov. “We are a Canadian company and we will not do anything to jeopardize our position. We will keep on abiding a 100% by the sanctions regime.”

“We’ve been working here in Iran from 20 years ago. However since the sanctions started we’ve had to leave the oil and gas sector completely, and the work in other fields has become the most complicated work we do all over the world,” said Bund, whose company is still selling equipment for power plants to Iran in spite of all the difficulties caused by the sanctions regime. “For every request we get, we have to first check with the German authorities which can take 8 weeks. Maybe one out of a hundred of these requests are approved,” Bund added. “Getting back into Iran’s oil sector after the sanctions are lifted is a number one priority for us, and we feel that something, some big steps are coming, but until it does, its business as usual, and it has never been as hard as it is right now.”

In spite of the positive signs from the ongoing nuclear talks, the outcome is far from certain. Should the negotiations ultimately fail, the opening both sides are anticipating will not materialize. “I hope that the nuclear diplomacy will get results, because only then will our energy diplomacy have a chance,” Nematollahi concluded.

TIME Iran

‘I’m Safe’: Last Status Update of Teenager on Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight

Pouria Nourmohammadi, a 19-year-old Iranian aboard Flight MH370 with a stolen passport who was planning to reach Germany, wrote "I'm Safe" on Facebook hours before the plane vanished over the weekend

The last status update Pouria Nourmohammadi posted on his Facebook page indicated he was “feeling excited.” The 19-year-old Iranian had good reason to be: he was embarking on the first leg of a flight that would ultimately take him to Germany where his mother was waiting to help him begin a new life.

But his journey was tragically interrupted. His flight, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday morning with all 239 people on board. Nearly four days later, no trace has been found of the Boeing 777 in spite of a massive search operation conducted by at least nine countries.

Nourmohammadi had earlier hinted he would be going on a long, life-changing trip. “Because of some problems I will deactivate my account. Friends, seriously, if I’ve done any of you a bad turn, forgive me because maybe …” he posted on his Facebook page on Feb. 24.

It was only when he started posting pictures of himself in Malaysia at popular Kuala Lumpur landmarks like the Petronas Towers that some of his friends realized he had left Iran.

“So you’ve gone as well?” wrote one on March 4. “Will you ever return?”

“No,” replied Nourmohammadi.

The revelation that two Iranians had boarded the Malaysian jetliner with stolen passports raised suspicions of hijacking or terrorism. However this was played down by authorities on Tuesday. Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol, said at a press conference that Nourmohammadi and 29-year-old Seyed Hamid Reza Delavar were “probably not terrorists.”

The head of the Malaysian police force, Khalid Abu Bakar, also said on Tuesday that after having been in touch with Nourmohammadi’s mother in Frankfurt, he believed the teenager had been trying to reach Europe as an asylum seeker. Because of dire economic circumstances as well as restrictions on social freedoms at home, some Iranian youth opt to make such risky trips. Many of them must use illegal methods, usually involving human-trafficking rings. Nourmohammadi had left Iran with his official passport, but apparently used a stolen Austrian passport when he arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

Until a few weeks ago, Nourmohammadi’s Facebook page seemed much like that of any other 19-year-old. It has posts on cars, girls and video clips of youth poking fun at those in authority. But as he approaches his departure from Iran, his posts turn more cryptic, the youthful cheerfulness dims. Nourmohammadi knew he was taking a big risk: he asked friends to pray for him the night before he left. After he went through Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s passport control, he posted: “Thanks to all of those who prayed for me, I’m safe.”

When news broke that he was on Flight 370, the comments started pouring in on his Facebook page.

“If only he would post exactly the same message again,” said Tannaz Nasr yesterday, commenting on his “I’m safe” post.

“I’m waiting for a miracle,” commented Shaqayeq GT today.

“I don’t know you, but I wish from the bottom of my heart that you will return to your family,” said Vahid Ajami.

Some of those who commented made clear they saw Nourmohammadi as a victim. “If you are no longer in this world then you are at last free my son … damn those who forced you to flee your home,” wrote commenter Mojgan Shahnazi on Nourmohammadi’s picture in front of the Petronas Towers.

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