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French carmakers poised to re-enter Iranian market

STR | AFP/Getty Images

The French car industry is in line for a cash windfall as well as the opportunity to reclaim its once dominant standing in the Iranian market following a thawing of relations between Tehran and the international community.

Renault, which was selling nearly 100,000 cars a year in Iran before sanctions came into force, still has around €200m frozen in the country that could be returned to its French coffers, according to people with knowledge of the group.

(Read more: Weak at home, France seeks grandeur abroad)

The French group is also hopeful that it can win back a large part of the market share it once had in the Iranian car market, where total sales hit 1.6m in 2011, the year before new sanctions were introduced by the US and other world powers.

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Two weeks ago Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of these tough sanctions. Restrictions on goods, including auto parts, will be relaxed in January for six months while negotiations continue.

French automakers are cautious, as the success of the next round of talks will determine if the sanctions on auto parts and other goods are permanently lifted, and also if financial sanctions are relaxed allowing money transfers back to France.

(Read more: Hollande turns torobots, driverless cars to revive French industry)

"There is a lot of diplomacy still at work," Dominique Thormann, chief financial officer of Renault told the Financial Times. "Clearly the outlook compared to a year ago . . . looks more positive today."

"What we were doing previously could be restarted. If all of that [sanctions] is lifted, presumably business will start just as we left it," he said.

Rival French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroën, which sold 458,000 cars in Iran in 2011, accounting for nearly a third of the total market, is also poised to return to the country, which was once its second market largest market after France.

Jean-Baptiste de Chatillon, Peugeot's chief financial officer, said last year that the sanctions had cut €10m a month from operating profit. The sum would be a welcome boost for a group with an operating loss of €48m a month in 2012.

(Read more: How Peugeot and France ran out of gas)

"We welcome the positive results from the negotiations in Geneva, which could lead to the suspension of sanctions, and we will now await further developments," said a spokesperson for Peugeot.

The opportunity to move back into a new foreign market comes as both Peugeot and Renault are pushing to expand their international presence in a bid to cope with the worst European car market for two decades.

They join a number of other companies in pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural sectors eyeing new Iranian markets. Oil companies are hoping that easing restrictions will allow them to tap the country's large oil reserves.

(Read more: France assures Israel it will stand firm on Iran deal)

Most foreign cars sold in Iran are assembled by local companies in partnership with global car makers. The leading manufacturer Iran Khodro hasjoint ventures with Peugeot, Renault and Suzuki while Saipa buildscars under license from Kia, Renault and Nissan.

Renault took a €512m write down in June this year on its Iran operations after halting its activities because of the sanctions.

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