Iran, having emerged from economic sanctions and tense nuclear weapons negotiations with the West, has been swiftly taking steps to modernize its automobile industry.
Two French automakers, Renault (RNO) and Peugeot, are poised to sign manufacturing accords, perhaps as soon as this week, and could benefit shortly from the lifting of international sanctions against Iran. Iran's vehicle production and importation have been restricted since 2013. In the meantime, Chinese and local automakers have filled the void in what is one of the largest markets in the region, with sales of about 1.2 million new vehicles annually.
A Peugeot deal could be worth 300 million euros, as part of a 50-50 joint venture with a local Iranian manufacturer.
European automakers that return to Iran will be undertaking risky investments, however, since Iran doesn't adhere to global norms in terms of human rights or amicable relations with neighbors. The country remains embroiled in the Syrian conflict and has openly threatened Israel.
Renault, which already has bet big by investing in Russia, knows how quickly things can wrong: The French automaker has little to show but losses for its investment in that country, which has been hit with sanctions, economic turmoil and international censure due to hostilities in Ukraine. Deliveries of vehicles fell to a six-year low last year. Renault, with its Nissan alliance partner and Avtovaz, the Russian partner, control 40% of the market.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU) - Get Report , incorporated in the Netherlands and operated from Auburn Hills, Mich., might be another automaker that wins Iranian permission to build and sell cars to Iranians. Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler's CEO, was scheduled to attend a ceremonial dinner in Rome that included Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president.
Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Daimler's (DDAIF) truck division, said "there is a huge demand (in Iran) for commercial vehicles, especially trucks." Last week, the German automaker said it had signed agreements with two Iranian partners, Khodro Diesel and Mammut Group, to return to the market. Daimler left Iran in 2010.
GM and Ford will be closely monitoring diplomatic action in Washington, however. Until U.S. sanctions are lifted entirely -- some remain based on grievances against Iranian involvement in terrorism and other complaints -- it's unlikely that either automaker will press anytime soon to initiate export or local Iranian manufacturing. Any such move easily could provoke objection from those interests in the U.S. that distrust Iran. GM and Ford would be wary of becoming involved in political controversy during a presidential election year. Likewise, Boeing isn't likely to challenge European aircraft maker Airbus Group to sell Iran commercial jets, as the latter is set to do.
Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.