A year ago, President Barack Obama issued a message to the people of Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Since then, the United States' diplomatic options have dwindled dramatically. This Nowruz, there is only one way to shift gears: America needs to start selling cars to Iran.
Why stop there? If Obama truly intends to chart a new course with Tehran, we should open up trade completely. Right away.
The essential piece of the Iran "puzzle" lacking from the U.S. intelligence community's understanding of our longtime adversary is a close inspection of the national personality. We've never known how to answer the critical question what makes these people tick?
As the latest in a long line of Persian merchants, I know: Iranians are among the world's greatest shoppers.
Those of us who know Iran well understand, yet hate to admit, that the one characteristic that binds Iranians as a people is their love of commerce. And as the country becomes more urbanized, consumerism is on the rise. Since the days when it was one of the main trading posts along the ancient Silk Road, the exchange of goods has been one of the most important ways its people relate to the outside world. And they're good at it.
They are as brand-conscious as any population in the world, and since most of the fun to be had in secular societies is outlawed, shopping, eating out, and just driving around have become national pastimes.
In the posh shopping avenues in northern Tehran, European products such as Diesel jeans, Nivea skin care products, and Lindt chocolates are ubiquitous. In the more working-class sections of the city, knockoff Marlboro and Winston cigarettes and pirated copies of Lost, Prison Break, and 24 are as easy to find as Qurans. Despite soaring inflation and unemployment, Iranians throughout the country are still spending. Even on the most important religious holidays, when shops are forced to close, they reopen after sundown to attend to their customers' desires.
So it's ridiculous that the United States has kept up a series of trade embargoes and sanctions against Iran for the last 30 years. The only thing these commercial restrictions have succeeded in doing is keeping American-made goods out of one of the world's biggest economies, which also happens to be a very liquid one.
What's more, Iran is one of the few remaining countries where American products still have cachet. With almost no marketing effort, America could dominate the import market to the world's 17th-largest economy, which is home to the last 70 million foreigners who put stock in the "Made in USA" label. The branding was done in the 1960s and '70s, when American products were still the best in the world. We're talking about a country where the word for razor is still Gillette, a tissue is a Kleenex,and a Band-Aid is, well, a Band-Aid.
Iranians wouldn't single-handedly save the Big Three automakers, but they could give the U.S. auto industry a much-needed cash infusion. Start selling Chevy Blazers and Ford Explorers to Tehran tomorrow, and they will all be gone by the weekend—and at much higher sticker prices than at your local dealership. (Iran is one of the only places in the world where owning a Navigator or an Escalade makes sense. Given its rugged topography and state-subsidized gas at 40 cents a gallon, I'd drive an American SUV there, too. You can fill up for less than the price of a movie in Manhattan or San Francisco.) Heck, forget automobiles, the demand for replacement parts for the thousands of pre-revolution American cars already on the roads of Iran would yield great profits on their own.