Iranian minister trying to woo Indian businesses

NIRMALA GEORGE, Associated Press

NEW DELHI -- As Western sanctions squeeze Iran and its currency tumbles, the country's energy minister worked Wednesday to woo Indian businesses to invest in the beleaguered Iranian economy.

Majid Namjoo told a meeting of Indian business leaders that there were huge opportunities to do business with Iran's private sector, which remains largely unaffected by sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Namjoo is on a four-day visit to India, where he is meeting with government ministers and business leaders to explore the possibilities of trade and joint ventures in renewable energy, power, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and food processing.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iran to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Namjoo said to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions, the Iranian government has been privatizing government companies, a large number of which were open for investments.

"We are trying to make Iranian industries more competitive in price and quality. This is a big opportunity for Indian companies to invest in Iran, or in third countries through joint ventures with Iranian firms," Namjoo said.

He said Iran was looking at a future where it would run out of oil and gas resources and was searching for renewable energy options.

Namjoo said India and Iran could work together in the field of hydroelectric energy in which Iranian companies have extensive expertise. Iran is exploring the feasibility of exporting some 4,000 megawatts of electricity to India.

Energy-starved India remains one of Iran's biggest oil importers and has been actively searching for investment deals with the country as an ad hoc barter arrangement to pay its oil bills.

India imports around 70 percent of its oil needs, of which around 11 percent are from Iran. However, India has been facing enormous problems over payments for the Iranian oil.

New Delhi initially channeled payments through German-based Europaisch-Iranische Handelsbank. But after the sanctions kicked in, the two countries moved to Turkey's Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS to facilitate payments.

That channel too may become inoperable after EU intervention. In February, Iran and India reached an agreement under which India would pay for 45 percent of oil supplies in Indian rupees, with the rest to be settled through a barter arrangement in goods and services.

The fallout of the sanctions is beginning to be felt by Iran, its currency and its people.

The Iranian rial, which has lost more than half its value in the past year, last week tumbled to its lowest value against the U.S. dollar _ 35,000 rials to a dollar. The plummeting value of the Iranian currency was also marked by small street protests in the tightly controlled society.

But a defiant Namjoo told journalists that while his country could weather the effect of sanctions, Iran's European neighbors were worse off.

"Iran is a big country. We will survive the sanctions," he said.

India, too, has come under increasing pressure over its oil purchases from Iran and is slowly easing its dependence on Iranian oil.

India also has its strategic interests in the Iranian neighborhood. New Delhi is helping to develop the southern Iranian port of Chabahar and a rail link that will offer it direct access to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia.