Tag Archive

Iran’s video-gaming industry poised for action

Comments (1) Business, Featured, Middle East


With international sanctions lifted, a burgeoning industry looks beyond its domestic market of 20 million gamers.

Iran, known mostly in the West for its grim political and religious restrictions, has a   burgeoning video game industry that is poised for growth as international sanctions are lifted in the wake of the international nuclear deal with Iran.

Iran has about 20 million video gamers, which represents about a quarter of the total population, according to the Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation. It’s notable that 60 percent of Iran’s population of 80 million is under 30 years of age.

With more than 38 million Internet users, more than half of them gamers, Iran “is the largest growing video games market in the Middle East,” the foundation said.

Games feature missile strikes

Iran’s video game industry is best known in the West for propaganda-driven warfare games such as Missile Strike, a 2015 release in which the Iranians break through Israel’s air defense system and launch missile strikes on Israeli targets, and Attack on Tel-Aviv, a 2011 release that simulates an Iranian military mission to the Israeli capital.

Iranian developers have said they created these games in response to a Battlefield 3, a game that simulates an invasion by United States forces in Tehran to search for the leader of a terrorist group and to look for nuclear weapons. Battlefield 3 was developed in Sweden and published in California.

“The reason we explicitly depict an attack on Israel is that they too are explicitly depicting attacks (on Tehran) in Battlefield,’’ Missile Strike developer Mehdi Atash Jaam said.

Popular games draw on Iranian mythology

Such militaristic games attract funding from conservative elements in the country. However, by many accounts, the most popular video games in Iran draw on the country’s rich history and culture rather than its contemporary international posturing.

For example, the popular Garshasp: The Monster Slayer, is drawn from Persian mythology. In Garshasp, released in 2010, the mythical hero with a hand blade fights in a series of epic battles against the evil Deevs who are trying to create an empire.

The game, created at a cost of $400,000 has sold more than 300,000 copies domestically.

A highly acclaimed 2014 release, Parvaneh: Legacy of the Light’s Guardians, features indigenous Iranian culture and promotes an Islamic lifestyle. It sold 85,000 copies in its initial release.

Most gamers are under 24

Iran video gamesClearly, there is an appetite for video games in Iran, especially among young people who make up such a large share of the total population. A survey by Techcrunch found that 67 percent of video gamers on mobile devices were under 24 and 80 percent were unmarried. Two-thirds play mobile games several times a day with the highest interest in action and strategy games followed by sports, racing and puzzles.

Since video game production began in Iran almost a decade ago, nearly 100 game studios have been established.

However, international sanctions have hurt Iran’s fledgling video gaming industry.

Developers have been unable to license their work and have limited ability to market it internationally.

Pirated games undermine domestic developers

While their games are relatively inexpensive, less than $10, the Iranian developers are often undercut by pirated versions of Western-produced games that have better production values yet cost only a few dollars.

When the prices are similar for one product developed by dozens of people at a cost of millions of dollars while another is developed at much lower cost by a small Iranian studio, “this makes for unfair competition,” said Mehrdad Ashtiani, production deputy at Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation.

Foundation provides funding and support

The foundation was established in 2007 with a gold of fostering the video game industry by providing funds and helping developers navigate government censorship restrictions.

Games such as Garshasp might not have been made but for foundation assistance.

The foundation also established a system for rating content and age appropriateness of digital content, including video games.

In January, the Iranian video game industry got some good news. United States and European officials lifted some of the harsher economic sanctions, which should open Iran to more investment from technology companies and video game publishers.

Read more

What do reformist gains in Iran elections mean for business?

Comments (0) Featured, Middle East, Politics

iran elections

Surprise Iranian election result endorses President Hassan Rouhani’s economic reforms.

On February 26th, Iranians headed to the polls and handed moderates and reformists a surprise victory. The result also signaled the endorsement of President Hassan Rouhani and his more moderate agenda and economic reforms, such as his recently negotiated nuclear deal and his moves to engage with the West.

Iranians were voting to decide who sits in the powerful 88-seat constitutional council, the Assembly of Experts, and the 290-seat Iranian Parliament. The Interior Ministry reported that the final count in the parliamentary elections gave reformists 85 seats and moderate conservatives 73, meaning the two blocks, who put their differences aside to run on the same platform, now hold a 54% majority over hard-liners. Iran’s moderates also won a majority in the Assembly, receiving 52 seats, or a 59% majority, bringing to an end more than a decade of conservative domination. In a vote of confidence, President Hassan Rouhani and one of his leading allies, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also retained their seats, while two prominent hardliners lost theirs.

The main role of the clerical Assembly of Experts is to choose the Supreme Leader, the head of state who sits above the president. Current Supreme Leader, 76-year-old hardliner Ali Khamenei, is reportedly ill, meaning it is likely the Assembly voted in by this election will pick the next Supreme Leader. If a reformer or moderate is elected, Iran could see significant change.

However, although this election gave moderates their most dramatic gains in a decade, there have been arguments that the victory is not as reformist as some claim. The running lists were both heavily pruned by the Guardian Council before the vote, with all but 166 rejected of the 801 individuals who put themselves forward as candidates for the Assembly, and 5,200 of the 12,000 individuals registered to run for the Parliament rejected. Nonetheless, with a 62% turnout, this election will be seen as a blow to hardliners and as evidence of a desire for change.

The economy at the heart of the elections

The economy seems to be at the heart of these election results. Iran has been suffering double-digit unemployment and inflation for much of the past decade. Sanctions have cost the country between 15-20% of GDP. And many of its brightest minds have deserted the economy, as 300,000 Iranians moved abroad between 2009 and 2013. A reformist victory suggests that Iranians have had enough of economic pain and are ready to endorse Rouhani’s economic reforms.

Rouhani intends to strengthen the private sector by tackling corruption, welcoming foreign investors, and developing trade with the West. Indeed, since taking office in 2013, more than 120 foreign business delegations have visited Iran in search of business opportunities. And just last month, February 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a poignant visit to the country to discuss increasing trade and signing several agreements. Rouhani has also travelled to Europe to drum up foreign investment, meeting Matteo Renzi in Rome and Francois Hollande in Paris, where he left with $30 billion in deals. Rouhani has also previously said that he hopes to develop tourism into a $30 billion-a-year industry by 2025.

Several deals have also been negotiated recently. Boeing has been given special clearance to sell to Iran, and General Electric is hoping to be offered the same benefit soon. In January, Iran signed an agreement to buy 118 Airbus jets worth $27 billion. And Iran’s Khodro and France’s Peugeot have signed an agreement to build cars.

His negotiation of the nuclear deal in January which lifted sanctions allowing Iran to once again export oil, was also a very clear message of intent. The country now plans to export an additional 1 million barrels a day this year, low prices or not, which will offer a boost to Iran’s economy. And it is also highly likely that foreign firms will start bidding on Iran’s oil fields, bringing the country more modern techniques.



Comparatively fewer restrictions on economic reforms

Moving forwards, analysts believe that these election results will offer Rouhani comparatively fewer restrictions on economic reforms and in making the country more attractive to foreign firms looking for a piece of the relatively untapped market of 77 million consumers. Analysts expect that Rouhani will find it easier to push through legislative reforms and address issues crucial to the business sector such as the commercial code, labor laws, and stock market regulation. They cite the expectation that hardliners will now focus their diminishing political power on social and cultural conservatism.

Analysts have also commented that the positive public opinion will also be significant. These election results offer a symbol to the rest of the world that Iranians themselves are more favorable towards trade and commerce with the West and America, and that in turn could encourage foreign businesses to make longer-term investments.

Of course, the elections do not leave Rouhani without restrictions. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is strongly against the expansion of civil liberties and freedoms, will still have the final say on matters of state, and the similarly conservative unelected clerical body, the Guardian Council, will continue to have the power to vet all laws. But it does seem that the winds of change may have begun to blow.

Read more

Crude oil falls as market braces for more Iranian oil

Comments (0) Business, Latest Updates from Reuters, Middle East

TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. crude oil futures fell in Asian trade on Friday, heading lower after posting the first significant gains for 2016 in the previous session, as the prospect of additional Iranian supply looms over the market.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI) was down 48 cents at $30.72 a barrel at 0345 GMT. On Thursday the contract rose 72 cents, or 2.4 percent, to settle at $31.20. It hit a 12-year low of $29.93 earlier this week.

WTI is on track to post a third consecutive weekly loss, down more than 6 percent. The contract is down nearly 18 percent from a 2016 high on January 4.

Brent crude was down 20 cents at $30.68 a barrel. The global benchmark settled up 72 cents, or 2.4 percent, at $31.03 a barrel on Thursday, after falling to $29.73, its weakest since February 2004.

Over the previous eight sessions, Brent had lost about $7 a barrel, almost 20 percent.

Western sanctions on Iran are expected to be lifted within days, potentially paving the way for more crude oil exports from the country, under a landmark agreement on Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.

“This is three or four months ahead of what the market was thinking last year, so it just adds fuel to the fire,” said Tony Nunan, Oil risk Manager, Mitsubishi Corp in Tokyo.

Iran has removed the sensitive core of its Arak nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors will visit the site on Thursday to verify the move crucial to the implementation of the atomic agreement with major powers, state television said on Thursday.

Any additional oil from Iran would add to the glut that has pushed oil prices into a deep slump since the middle of 2014.

“It is the wrong time for Iran to be returning to the oil market, both for the market and likely also for Iran,” Phillip Futures said in a note on Friday.

“It would have been so much more ideal for Iran to return to the oil scene if prices were soaring at $100,” it said.



(By Aaron Sheldrick. Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Read more

Iran’s nuclear deal may not mean an oil boom

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East

iran oil

The prospect of western sanctions ending in Iran is an exciting prospect for international oil companies hoping to tap the fourth largest oil reserves in the world. According to Russia’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the historic Iran nuclear deal is expected to see sanctions lifted in Tehran in January 2016. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal brokered between Iran and the P5 + 1 nations (France, China, UK, Russia, US and Germany) in July 2015 after 20 months of negotiation, is ground breaking. In exchange for Iran reducing its nuclear program, including swapping non-enriched uranium to scale back its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, Europe and the US will lift international economic sanctions on Iran.

Despite concerns that the US Congress may block the deal, the prospect of oil markets opening up to international oil companies seems more likely come January 2016, with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) expected to close a 12 year investigation into Iran’s nuclear program when the board meets in December 2015.

Hope for oil markets as sanctions lift

If the Iran nuclear agreement holds, western sanctions are due to begin winding back in early January 2016. Consequently, a Reuter’s poll comprising 25 oil analysts and economists predicted that as much as 750,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Iranian crude oil could enter the global market by mid-2016. International oil companies such as France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Royal-Dutch Shell are understandably enthusiastic about the prospect of gaining traction in Iran’s emerging oil economy. With the promise of 50 new production projects in Iran’s extensive oil and gas reserves and flexible contracts on offer in 2016, the prospect of an oil boom seems tangible.

iran oilProgress on JCPOA nuclear deal

But how robust is this deal in reality? Will Iran deliver on its promise to scale back their nuclear program?

On the one hand there are promising signs that Iran is ratifying the agreement. As recently as November, 2015 the Iranian nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi reported that work had begun to decommission centrifuges. This activity was additionally confirmed by complaints in Tehran from 20 MPs, claiming that dismantling work at Natanz and Fordow facilities was advancing too quickly.

Further progression of the JCPOA was evidenced by Iran granting permission for the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the sensitive military site Parchin in September, 2015. This was despite earlier parliamentary restrictions which declared the nuclear deal excluded such inspections.

However, in complete contrast to these acts of compliance, in October, 2015 Iran fired a long – range ballistic missile from a hidden military base in a seemingly confrontational act of defiance. Considering sanctions will only be lifted when Iran fulfils conditions within the nuclear agreement, this action sent confusing signals.

Political climate throws doubt on nuclear deal

There is also concern that the nuclear deal has not been ratified into local Iranian law. Rather the Iranian parliament has referred to the JCPOA as a “Plan of Action”, maintaining the agreement’s voluntary nature (according to the Iranian government). This avoids the Iranian parliament having to mandate the agreement as an international treaty or contract, which would require local governmental authorization into law.

Thus the nuclear deal, in reality, is an agreement accepted by the Rouhini agreement on the basis of good faith, but stands on shaky ground when considering the implications for future governments. Until the JCPOA deal is legislated into Iranian law it would arguably be unwise for international oil companies to leap into Iran’s oil and gas market without some serious caution.

Conditions too volatile to ensure oil market stability in Iran

Although some economists have predicted a significant global reduction in oil prices once the JCPOA “day of commencement” arrives, the shifting sands of Iran’s political and military conditions make this eventuality less likely. Even if Iran does comply with nuclear downsizing, discontinues weapons testing and demonstrates political willingness to conform to the agreement, there is still concern about the power of the military over commercial operations.

For instance the US insists sanctions will be maintained over the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Although this military corps was designed to respond to internal or external threats against Iran, it now has extensive influence in the Iranian oil and gas industry via control over hundreds of companies. Therefore, international oil companies may still find themselves hampered by sanctions if they partner with Iranian companies maintaining ties to the revolutionary guard.

When the long term political and military complexities are considered in Iran, it seems it may be some time before the Iran nuclear deal will make a significant impact on global oil markets.

Read more

Tehran takes tough line with VAT tax

Comments (0) Featured, Middle East, Politics

iran tax

Implementation of 2008 VAT  tax at a time of economic stagnancy is causing confusion and anger in Iran’s merchant class.

Across Iran there is a growing anger at VAT bills received by merchants, many of them covering the years since the tax was first implemented in 2008, and some of the bills reaching $100,000 or more.

As Iran faces economic stagnancy, businesses claim that these VAT bills could in many cases render their businesses unsustainable. Falling oil prices have greatly affected the Iranian economy over the last few years. And with the groundbreaking deal with the West on slowing development of nuclear weapon capability meaning that many sanctions will be lifted in mid-2016, many consumers have vastly reduced their spending in the hope that the deal will bring both lower prices and a greater range of available goods.

Relaxed Taxation

Historically Iran has had a laid back approach to taxation; authorities were often willing to negotiate and bargain, there was a high level of smuggled – and thus tax free – goods available on the market, and dual accounting was and is still common practice to avoid some taxes. But with the global oil market seeing reduced prices over the last decade, the Iranian government brought in a 3% VAT level in 2008 on all but everyday goods such as bread and some other food products.

But since President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, tax collection has been stepped up, a move that is now worrying business owners across Iran. With oil prices forecast to continue falling in the year ahead, the lifting of sanctions still several months away, and with a deficit that could reach 550 trillion Iranian rials next year (18.3 billion USD), the government is keen to maximize tax collection. Given that the vice-president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Pedram Soltani, estimates that 40% of all government income in the year ending March 2016 will come from taxation – with VAT constituting half that figure – it is understandable why the authorities in Tehran are keen to pursue this.

Power of the Merchants

But President Rouhani has to tread carefully on this issue. Despite there being a ban on free trade unions, the merchant class – or bazaaris to give them their traditional name in Iran – remains a powerful force with a past history of confronting the government on this same issue. They played a key part in the revolution of 1979, combining with the clergy to oppose the Shah’s oppressive policy and implementing strikes which crippled the economy. And, when they see it as necessary, they have again wielded that power to oppose policies by the new regime. A 2008 strike in response to the original implementation of VAT saw clashes with security forces as many businesses closed. This led to a temporary suspension of the tax and an announcement of annual rises with an agreement on figures of 6 to 15%.

iran tax 2Then in 2010 the government stated that VAT on many goods would rise by 70%. Once again the bazaaris went on strike and once again the government backed down, agreeing to reduce the VAT rise to 15% instead of 70%. The government also offered a concession that businesses who could show they operated at a loss in previous years could apply for an exemption from increases.

An interesting factor of both these strikes was that it was not confined to merchants who were affected by the higher rates but was instead supported by traders across a wide range of goods, illustrating that the bazaaris had strong solidarity across their “membership.”

A rock and a hard place

How this current dispute plays out will be interesting to observe and hard to predict. On one hand, there is a determined government led by Rouhani who is trying to steer the country through uncertain economic waters. Even with the lifting of sanctions due in mid-2016, it will take some time for that to have any positive effects. On the other hand there is a united and powerful merchant class who are adamant that many businesses cannot survive these new increases or backdated bills. Given the outcomes of the two previous strikes and the resulting government climb-downs, it may well be the case that Rouhani has to consider some form of compromise, as strike action of any length would further damage the economy and could also lead to more instances of public disorder.

Read more

Post-Sanctions Iran: A Modern Day “Gold Rush” for Investors

Comments (0) Latest Updates from Reuters, Middle East, Politics

Iranian flag

By Enu Afolayan (Contributor)

Iran is opening up all major sectors of its economy for foreign investments. The conditions are still under discussion, butforeign businesses are already preparing their market penetration plans. Iran offers exciting opportunities, however the risks are even higher.

On the 29th of June, the Foreign Minister of France met Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, the Oil Minister of Iran, to announce the beginning of a new era in the history of Iran’s oil industry. France’s Total corporation would be the first foreign company to develop Iran’s oilfields after the sanctions have been lifted.

It is expected that the additional oil from Iran will lead to a market supply increase, and consequently to a further decrease in oil prices. It is still a big question whether this scenario will become a reality. While experts and the media try to forecast the amount of barrels arriving on the market from Iran, there may be other aspects of this “Iranian thaw” that could be even more important than short-term fluctuations of BRENT and WTI oil prices.

Iran is opening up all major sectors of its economy for foreign investments. The conditions are still under discussion, but foreign businesses are already preparing their market penetration plans. Iran offers exciting opportunities, however the risks are even higher.

Economics of the Iranian Thaw

The result of the negotiations between Iran and the G6 countries (Russia, USA, EU, Great Britain, France, China and Germany) in July was the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. In exchange for relief from some sanctions, Iran agreed to significantly reduce the stockpile of enriched uranium in the country, and to provide access to IAEA experts to all nuclear facilities in Iran for the next 20 years. Iran also agreed to suspend uranium enrichment operations for 15 years. The EU and the US agreed to lift sanctions starting next year as long as Iran complies with agreements made.

The decrease in oil prices shocked the Iranian economy that had already been struggling. Sanctions have been a heavy burden for the country, weakened by excess bureaucracy, corruption and mismanagement.

The sanctions imposed on Iran led to 60% decrease in oil exports – from 2.5 million barrels per day to 1.4 million barrels per day, with dire consequences for the country’s economy. In 2013, while oil prices were at their peak, Iran’s oil revenues fell from 100 billion USD to 35 billion USD, and GDP was down 5%.

The decrease in oil prices pushed the Iranian government into a corner and it had to recognise the urgent need of reforms. By agreeing with Western countries, Iran aimed to solve multiple problems: the lifting of sanctions, increasing the effectiveness of the economy by attracting foreign investments, and offsetting the oil revenue decrease through increased production output.


Oil Investments as a Key Goal of the New Governmental Policy

Throughout the history of Iran, oil played a significant role, not only for the economy, but also for the country’s national identity. The first nationalisation of the oil industry under Mohammed Reza Pahlevi happened under the idea of “liberation” of the country from English corporations that exploited the country’s oil resources. Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran in 1950’s, was the first politician to “give back the oil to the people of Iran”. In 1951, the property of Anglo-Persian Oil company (later known as BP) became national property of the country.

In 1953, as a result of a military coup, Mossadegh was ousted and nationalisation was cancelled. British and American corporations agreed on the privatisation of the National Iranian Oil Company. Even though only 10% of the company’s shares belonged to foreign corporations, Ruhollah Chomeini had gained many Iranian hearts by making the “battle for the oil” key to the main leitmotif of his political campaign in exile.

After the 1979 revolution, foreign companies were forced from Iran. The oil industry went into a long period of decline, which lasted until the end of 1990’s, when liberal president Mohammed Hatami attempted to revive the oil industry by cooperating with foreign partners. Unfortunately, his efforts were curbed by the nuclear program of Iran that deteriorated the country‘s relations with the West.

Today, the Iranian government is desperately trying to attract foreign investments into the oil sector in order to increase production output and to fill in the hole in oil revenue. Recently, the Oil Minister of Iran said that without sanctions the country would be able to increase output to 4 million barrel per day. However, Iran would need investments of 50 billion to 100 billion USD to achieve this ambitious goal. To attract this amount of money from foreign investors, the government of Iran has to ensure smooth transformation of all necessary institutions, and to restore the trust of the international community. After two decades of state oil monopoly and two nationalisations, it may take years.

The positive aspect is that after relief from the sanctions, Iran can bring about 30-40 million barrels of crude and condensates that it held in floating storage. Based on estimates of the International Energy Agency, it would ensure the supply of an additional 180,000 barrels per day for 6 months to the global market. Knowing that global consumption of oil is currently at about 90 million barrels per day, this additional oil supply is unlikely to influence oil prices.


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands on January 14, 2015 with US State Secretary John Kerry in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / POOL / RICK WILKING

Non-oil Investments as a Side Effect

It isn’t only the oil and gas industry players that are enthusiastically welcoming the opening up of the Iranian market. The World Bank predicted a “massive economic windfall”, advising Iran to attract investments into non-oil industry, including infrastructure and communications. However, the success of the new investment policy depends on proper planning on the part of Iran. At the moment, the outlook is not as shiny as it might have appeared: widespread corruption and the need of transformation of many national institutions will probably hamper the government’s efforts and discourage investors.

Despite many organisational challenges, Iran attracts investors with tremendous opportunities. A modern day “Gold Rush” is expected to set off in Iran. Coca Cola, Mercedes, Arabian hospitality corporations, American grain importers, European power corporations and many others are already looking forward to the battle for their share of the Iranian market.

The internal privatisation began in Iran few years ago. For a decade, Iranian investors have been acquiring undervalued assets: insurance companies, hospitals, and other public utilities were put up for sale. Recently, the state telecommunications company was put up for sale. However, due to the deep crisis in Iran’s economy, it is getting harder and harder to find internal buyers for these assets. Foreign investments could be an easy solution for Iran’s desperate need for money.

At the same time, Iran’s government is still not clear on conditions of cooperation with foreign investors. President Rohani stated recently that foreign investors would be welcome only if they worked with a local partner, hired local workforce and transferred their technology to Iran.

While the new foreign investment law is still a work in progress, the Iranian president continues his meetings with investors, encouraging them to take the opportunities offered by the new post-sanctions Iran.

Failure of Industrial Nationalism

Media attention is now focused on the relief from sanctions in Iran. However, the key problem in Iran’s economy is not the sanctions that were imposed just a few years ago. The problems with Iran’s economy began much earlier, and they were linked to the nationalisation of all sectors and economic isolation after the revolution.

Iran has the largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world, but its production capacity is lower than that of Russia, USA, Saudi Arabia and Canada. This proves that Iran failed to use the potential of its oil industry to give an impulse to economic development. It had good chances to become a country with one of the highest GDPs per capita and to develop a smart investment policy to boost other sectors of economy. But unfortunately, the success of economic development depends not only on the amount of oil reserves, but also on institutional capacity, anti-corruption measures and proper management systems. Unfortunately, in all these areas, Iran has been at the bottom of global rankings. With or without sanctions, the government of Iran should find a solution to the country‘s internal structural problems.

Read more