An obscure story in the Azerbaijani press this past summer may be the tip of a much larger iceberg involving General Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen and the Western World’s current bete noir: the Iranian regime currently embroiled at the heart of a controversial nuclear program, which is subject to economic sanctions by the United States government, including those that specifically target Iran’s automotive industry.
Citing reports from Iran’s Mehr news agency, an Azerbaijani news outlet reported that an unspecified number of brand new Chevrolet Camaro RS 2LT convertibles were imported by a division of Iranian conglomerate Iran Khodro. According to the report, the Camaros were sent from Miami to Paris, and then from Paris to Tehran via a Qatar Airways plane. The report also states that US Customs and Border Patrol documents list the final destination as the Aras Free Trade and Industrial Zone.
Iran Khodro, which manufactures automobiles in Iran, is among the Iranian industrial entities that has been hit hard by American sanctions against Iran, including those that specifically target its auto industry, which some parties allege is a “major procurement network that imports material and technologies used to build uranium centrifuges instead of cars.”
Given the serious penalties for violating sanctions against Iran, it seems unthinkable at first glance that General Motors vehicles would be exported to Iran for sale without any consequences. GM even stipulated that PSA suspend doing business with Iran and IKCO as part of its alliance agreement with PSA, an agreement that seems to have stalled at this point. But a deeper dive into the matter reveals a much more complex picture, one that sheds more light on GM’s future positioning in emerging markets, its dealings with Iran itself, and what may be the true nature of its alliance with PSA.
The ties between PSA and IKCO have historically been very strong. Most of IKCO’s cars were Peugeot vehicles of varying ages, branded as Iran Khodro or Peugeot vehicles, and built in Iranian factories. In a market of 1.12 million units annually, IKCO had production capacity for a million units per year, with IKCO and PSA’s joint venture ruling the vast majority of those sales, while their factories ran very close to capacity in previous years. PSA alone accounted for roughly 458,000 units sold in Iran, while PSA rival Renault also had a strong interest in Iran, selling 100,000 units per year, until it withdrew from the country, citing fears of violating U.S sanctions as a reason for walking away from the Iranian market.
Now, various French news outlets, including Le Figaro, a respected daily newspaper, are accusing General Motors of intentionally gutting PSA’s ability to do business in Iran, while attempting to establish its own partnership with IKCO, as a means of securing a strong footing in the up and coming Iranian market, one that Boston Consulting Group estimates is good for 1.5 million units per year by 2020, making it one of the strongest of the “Beyond BRIC” countries.
Le Figario states that
Iranian automotive industry is particularly courted by General Motors . The giant came into contact with Iran Khodro, which worked until 2012 with Peugeot to produce 206 and 405 models that the French group has stopped delivering to Iran because of Western sanctions imposed on Tehran for its nuclear ambitions . ”For at least six months as emissaries of General Motors go to Iran, they are no longer the simple identification of the market,” warns the industry, “but rather to the draft contract resumption of GM “, which was firmly established in the time of the Shah.
Le Figaro alleges that GM is not the only company to be looking to Iran if and when relations between America and Iran thaw amid a resolution over its nuclear crisis, but it does call out an ad campaign on behalf of GM undertaken by an Iranian law firm – other reports also point to a social media campaign designed to target Iranian consumers on behalf of GM. Other allegations leveled at GM include the use of emissaries on behalf of GM visiting Iran and IKCO as part of a broader push to undermine established French business interests in favor of American companies in preparation for the resumption of commercial dealings with Iran. One source cited by Le Figaro doesn’t think that this was a mere coincidence. The source claims that Executive Order 13645 is
“…a real cleansing of the Iranian car market as it prepares to make way for U.S. manufacturers before a political deal between Tehran and Washington.”
Upon closer examination, sale of the Camaros appears to be allowed under a loophole in Executive Order 13645 , which punishes any foreign entity that sells or supplies parts or services to Iran’s automotive industry (specifically its manufacturing sector) but does not prohibit supplying Iran with assembled vehicles.
During the initial stages of the tie-up, the alliance between GM and PSA was difficult to discern. Beyond vague platform sharing and purchasing agreements, there seemed to be few synergies that made such an alliance worthwhile. By the Iranian angle adds context to the entire affair.
By putting pressure on PSA to end its relationship with IKCO, GM gave America a way to keep the heat on Iran’s economy while also cutting off an artery for hard currency via reduced vehicle exports. At the same time, it was able to cripple an already ailing partner by cutting it off from one of its better export markets, and a growing one at that. Before the alliance had even been former, our own global sales reports showed that sanctions and other economic factors had been effective at gutting Iran’s automotive market, composed largely of locally built IKCO/PSA products. The departure of Renault was another positive development for GM, with the French auto maker walking away from 100,000 units annually. Altogether, the absence of the two French players leaves a 585,000 unit hole in Iran’s nearly 1 million strong auto market, one that GM is primed to capitalize on if and when things get less frosty and trade relations between the two countries open up .
Many observers feel that Iran’s Islamic regime is living on borrowed time, thanks to a relatively young population that is plugged into Western popular culture – these same people came very close to toppling the regime just a few years ago. And while regime change doesn’t seem to be in the cards anymore, then the very sanctions designed to bring the regime to its knees might at least foment some sort of normalization of relations in exchange for the forfeiture of Iran’s nuclear program, along with a new, more moderate ruler (though Iran’s unelected religious leaders still hold all the power). Such vast numbers of young people with rising economic prospects and families of their own on the horizon will be perfect consumers for a large number of automobiles in the future, and who better to serve them than General Motors?
The timing is likely to be fortuitous, as Iran’s auto market is expected to grow by another 500,000 units, to roughly 1.5 million units by the end of the decade. GM’s push won’t be centered around Camaros either. The General has a number of Chinese brands selling cheap, compact vehicles that can go head to head with Chinese brands like Great Wall that are already established in Iran. If GM really does make a big push into Iran, brands like Wuling and Baojun will be just as important as Chevrolet and Buick, and will likely be part of an attempt to capture a substantial amount of volume by utilizing multiple brands in GM’s portfolio to help capture various market segments from compact low-cost cars to flashier fare to the smaller commercial vehicles that brands like Wuling are known for.
Platform sharing, the oft reported cause of death of the GM-PSA alliance, may have been a red herring all along. GM could possibly have decided to abandon the alliance, or any pretense of it, after getting what they came for: in this case, an express pass to a promising emerging market that isn’t a BRIC country. But don’t count PSA out just yet. Recent talks with Chinese auto maker Dongfeng could allow it to get back in the game in Iran, free of any concerns about violating U.S. sanctions.