In a charm offensive to the global political and business elite, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani set lofty ambitions for his country, including becoming one of the world’s top 10 economies.
The first Iranian leader in a decade to visit the World Economic Forum, Rouhani took top billing on Thursday at the forum in Davos, Switzerland, drawing crowds to hear a speech in which he promised greater engagement with the world.
Touting the potential investment opportunities of the oil-rich land to the business tycoons in the audience, Rouhani said Iran could, with the gradual easing of sanctions, enjoy an economic boom.
He said Tehran is committed to honoring a deal to curb its nuclear program in the hope that will lead to a permanent lifting of economic sanctions, which have battered the economy over recent years.
“I see the status of Iran pursuing policies of moderation, prudence and hope in the future global economy,” Rouhani said. “Iran’s economy has so far the potential to be among the world’s top 10 in the next three decades.”
The IMF ranked Iran as the world’s 21st biggest economy in terms of annual economic income, or nominal GDP in 2012. To get into the top 10 it would have to leapfrog Switzerland, Turkey and Spain.
Rouhani’s attendance was eagerly awaited as it coincided with the lifting of some of the sanctions, as well as the country’s exclusion from Syrian peace talks being held just a few hours’ drive away.
The forum, which brings together about 2,500 political and business leaders, was the perfect stage for Rouhani to deliver a diplomatic message while seeking to engage with potential investors.
In an attempt to soften concerns that sanctions will remain a feature of life for Iran, Rouhani said that Tehran would abide by the terms of a deal with world powers to limit its nuclear program. The two sides will try to make the deal permanent over the next six months.
“We intend to reopen trade, industrial and economic relations, with all of our neighbors,” he said.
Iran is “fully prepared and ready to engage with all neighboring countries” to reach solutions on issues, including business ventures, environmental concerns, Palestinian rights, Persian Gulf security and Syria’s humanitarian crisis, he said.
Iran has huge riches at its disposal, particularly oil and gas, the workforce is skilled and the country has untapped potential for tourism.
However, the country has largely been cut off from international business since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The sanctions, which have grown in recent years in response to Iran’s nuclear program, have hit the economy hard.
“Rapprochement with the West will help stabilize Iran’s economy,” IHS senior economist Bryan Plamondon said.
Rouhani said he hoped Iran’s historical deep economic ties with Europe would be normalized and suggested that negotiations with the US could pave the way to better relations. He reiterated that Iran has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, but has the right to continue pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
In a sign of the normalization of relations, the IMF sending a mission to Tehran in two days — for the first time in years — for an in-depth review of the economy.
“I am very pleased we can reset the relationship on a sound footing,” IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said at a discussion in Davos.