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At Davos, Iran Tries to Reopen the Bazaar

 

DAVOS, Switzerland — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is touting Iran as a prime investment opportunity to the business people and political leaders at Davos. They're definitely willing to take a look, but it's not clear yet that anyone will be willing to buy.

Rouhani delivered the message to a packed auditorium at the World Economic Forum here, but he's also been steadily repeating it in private meetings with executives and financiers. In his closely-watched speech Thursday, Rouhani told participants to come to Iran and "witness the extensive fields for investment." 

It may be years before those fields are ready for harvest, however. Tehran's interim nuclear agreement with the U.S. went into effect earlier this week, but the short-term deal eases only a few of the far-reaching sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. The majority of the sanctions remain in place and there's no guarantee negotiators will be able to agree to terms on a broader, long-term deal that would really open up Iran's market. Rouhani even acknowledged that his plan to re-integrate Iran into the global economy faces a "long and winding and difficult road."

Many companies, especially U.S.-based ones, are waiting for an American permission slip, not an Iranian invitation. And they are going to be very hesitant to re-enter Iran until all the sanctions are lifted and the U.S. government has given them the green light. U.S. Treasury Department officials have been threatening to levy steep penalties against any company that dares go back into Iran while the measures are still in effect. On Thursday, Treasury announced a $152 million fine against a unit of German company Deutsche Borse for violating sanctions against Iran by holding securities that belonged to Iran's central bank. The conduct took place in 2007 and 2008, but -- in what is either a stunning coincidence or a deliberate warning -- Treasury decided to release the announcement on the same day Rouhani was having his Davos debutante ball. 

Rouhani met privately with a group of about 35 business people Thursday afternoon to tout the potential of Iran's automobile, metals and oil sectors, according to a person who attended. He was asked by an American executive whether he could guarantee a long-term nuclear deal, according to this person. His answer was no.

The interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States has raised the potential that the Iranian market could open up, sparking the interest of oil companies and other potential investors. But that prospect will only become a concrete possibility if the interim deal can be transformed into a long-term one that lifts the strict U.S. sanctions that make most business with Iran impossible. 

Iran's shaky relationships with some of its wealthiest neighbors could also be an impediment. Rouhani said he wanted to reopen trade with all of Iran's neighbors, or at least all the countries that Iran recognizes. Israel is not on that list. Iran also has a long-standing and increasingly bloody feud with Saudi Arabia, the biggest and richest country in the region. Two Saudi businessmen, who heard Rouhani's speech, but didn't want to be named, were skeptical that that Rouhani would have the political power to achieve his vision for Iran's economy.

His success or failure will have more to do with politics than business. Critics in Iran and the U.S. still have the potential to derail the deal. And the eagerness of some European companies to get back into Iran could drive a wedge into the already divided views of  the EU and the U.S. on how sanctions should be implemented. (Not to mention the U.S. government's zeal for fining foreign companies.) Some U.S. policymakers are also still skeptical of the deal, though they're holding off on drafting new sanctions for now. Oil and gas companies like Royal Dutch Shell and Italy's Eni already angered many Obama administration officials by meeting with Iranian officials after the interim agreement was signed in November.

Rouhani's appearance in Davos represents Tehran's highest-profile effort to persuade the world's leading businesspeople to invest in Iran if or when sanctions are fully lifted. Early reactions suggested that the Iranian leader notched a clear public relations win. Actually persuading companies to return to Iran, though, will indeed be a long, winding and difficult slog.

ERIC PIERMONT/AFP

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Seven Times Lady Grantham Completely Embarrassed Herself in Sierra Leone

An errant charity trip to Sierra Leone may have just ruined Downton Abbey forever.

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, the Countess of Grantham on the hit British show Downton Abbey, went to Sierra Leone to visit the child she sponsors through the charity organization World Vision. She was accompanied by Telegraph reporter Jake Wallis Simons, who recounted her trip in a bizarre, unplugged article that chronicled the star actress' journey to Africa as an ambassador for World Vision. McGovern, whose once-promising film career unraveled in the 1980s only to be revived by Downton, offers some off-the-cuff insights on nutrition, the sexual habits of "African" people, genital mutilation, and more. With the U.S.  premiere of the show's fourth season on PBS earlier in January, the Telegraph story from just before Christmas kicked up a Twitter storm Thursday. 

The Downton star's trip to Sierra Leone is ripe with irony. Critics have repeatedly accused the show of glorifying the classist, racist colonial world of earls and dukes of early 20th century England. Lady Grantham's decision to choose a former British colony, once a transit hub for slave trade, as her charity case is but the cherry on top. Even better, as much as we crow about the colonial guilt and cultural insensitivity of the former British empire, the Downton star who embarrassed herself in Africa is ... American. Here are seven times the kindhearted Lady Grantham, known for the consideration she shows her legion of servants, utterly embarrassed herself in Sierra Leone.

1. Are we in Darfur yet?

McGovern had never been to Africa before her trip to Sierra Leone. Wallis, rather charmingly, points out her first mishap of the trip: "As if to prove this point, when we refuel in Dakar, Senegal, she gets mixed up and says we have stopped in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, some 4,000 miles away." Whoops. By the way, Cora, Sierra Leone concluded a brutal, decade-long civil war in 2002. 

To that, Sarah Wilson, a representative of World Vision, the charity that paid for McGovern's trip said, "We have to break in our new celebrities slowly ... There will be lots of breaks so she doesn't get overloaded." Carson, get this woman some tea.

2. Wait, what, World Vision is Christian?

In a video shot during McGovern's trip she says that she has often been hesitant in the past about "throwing a lot of money" at charities, because she didn't really know where the money was going. Well, she still doesn't. 

Wallis asked the actress, who is not Christian, why she chose to support a religious organization instead of, say, UNICEF, a common choice for celebrities. McGovern had no clue that World Vision was a Christian-affiliated group. The organization's representatives never told her, as they thought it obvious -- "they had assumed that McGovern would take a look at the World Vision website." A glance at the group's logo probably would have given her a hint. It's a shining cross. The group's website makes it even more obvious: "World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice."

"I was stupid not to realise it," McGovern said. 

Though World Vision is adamant that its charity work does not include proselytizing, a driver is quoted in the Telegraph article telling McGovern and Wallis that after the organization's employees convince local Muslim populations that they are "good people," they pay pastors to preach to them. "Christianity is our goal," the driver says. 

One can't help but wonder about the arrangement the Telegraph had with McGovern, as it seems nothing was off-the-record, even her discussions of other media coverage of the trip. "Before I do interviews, I need to know what distinguishes World Vision from its competitors," Wallis quoted McGovern saying. "Is it less well-known because it spends less on promotion?" Perhaps she failed to realize that she is the promotion. World Vision, which is one of the largest aid groups in the world, sponsored McGovern's not-so-cheap trip.

3. OMG, their food is so healthy!

As McGovern and Wallis were eating a lunch of fried plantains and chicken curry, McGovern remarked: "Their food must be so healthy ... You don't see all those crap chains and stuff. But I guess that will change as the country gets more modern. It's like a holiday. I feel a bit guilty." 

4. Brad Pitt was here?! Oh, I slept with him once

McGovern, it seems, is totally immune to picking up on irony. In one breath, she offers the following gem: "I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home." Informed that they will soon be staying at a hotel at which Brad Pitt had once overnighted, she offers up the following revelation: "Oh, I've slept with Brad Pitt before ... Before he became a sex object."

(She would later tell Wallis that she was referring to an on-camera sex scene.) 

5. "And that clitoris thing is awful"

McGovern also has some thoughts on how World Vision should prioritize its work. "You see certain cultures where there's just endemic cruelty to women," she said. "I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful."

That clitoris thing? Perhaps she means genital mutilation?

6. Call me "mum"  

As shown in the video, accompanied by a sometimes uplifting, sometimes somber tune, McGovern kneels down to meet Jestina, the girl she sponsors. She calls herself the girl's "sponsored mum." That's a title she acquired for $38 per month -- a modest amount that doesn't even go to the girl, but as Wallis notes, to projects in the community. "A cynic might view all this as histrionic," he writes, though he later notes that McGovern's emotions seemed genuine.

7. Lady Grantham drops her iPhone in the toilet, Africa weeps

"My overwhelming feeling is the gratitude of the people for the money that they're getting," McGovern told Wallis. While they were touring a poor area, McGovern came out of her room "white as a sheet." She had dropped her iPhone in the toilet. As someone suggested that rice would help drain the moisture from the phone, McGovern asked the hostess for some rice -- in a country where over 21 percent of children under the age of five are underweight.  

It didn't work, and so it happened that poor Lady Grantham traveled all the way to Sierra Leone with no access to Instagram. Thank God for the video footage. Otherwise all that hugging of poor black children would have been for nothing. 

The Telegraph; screenshot