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Iran's President Is In Paris To Look For Business Opportunities


A world leader is in Paris this morning on a shopping trip. President Hassan Rouhani is making the first visit to Europe by an Iranian leader in 17 years. Now that sanctions have been lifted, he is spending billions on behalf of his country. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from Paris. And Eleanor, you're at a business event right now, I know. Who is there?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, this morning the Iranian president spoke in front of a business group. It's the French equivalent of the Small and Medium-Sized Business Administration. So you've got business people here that represent not just major companies, but small ones. You know, it seems that everybody wants to get back into Iran. And there's much, much interest in the president's visit.

MONTAGNE: Well, after so many years of sanctions because of Iran's nuclear programs, that country's needs are huge. What is he after on this particular trip?

BEARDSLEY: Well, right - well, first of all, Iran's infrastructure is in a dilapidated state. It needs new roads. It needs water treatment plants. It needs airports. Its planes - half of them have been grounded. They haven't had new parts, and they're very dangerous. Iran has had a lot of plane crashes. So everything remains to be done. And also, you've got a market of, you know, 80 million people - a very large and educated middle class who want Western products. They haven't had Western products in so long, and it's the number seven cosmetics market in the world. So imagine the opportunities. Renee, I think the tone was set this morning. The head of this French business association announced that in the coming weeks, there will be a return of direct flights from Paris to Tehran by Air France. He said that's a symbolic move. But actually, the aviation sector is huge, and one of the biggest deals that's going to be announced today is that Airbus will sell 114 planes to Iran. That is just a multibillion-dollar contract. And that's set to be signed today.

MONTAGNE: And that is huge, of course, for France. France would be very happy about that.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: What else is on Rouhani's agenda there in Paris?

BEARDSLEY: You know, he's meeting with President Hollande later today. And there will be diplomatic issues on the agenda because, as we know, Iran is a key to bringing stability to the Middle East right now. It does support the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that the West is against. But it's also one of the main opponents to ISIS. So I've been told by analysts that President Hollande is going to try to enlist Iran's help in fighting ISIS. So that will be discussed.

MONTAGNE: That - what might qualify as the light side, President Rouhani stopped in Italy, and there was something of a minor controversy because antique statues of nudes were covered up for him. Boxes were put over them so as not to offend Rouhani. Anything like that of concern in Paris?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, Renee, that was funny. Apparently, that came to light as he was leaving the country, and Italian officials took a lot of heat. Now, the French are avoiding it altogether because a couple months ago, before the visit, while it was being planned - you know, the Iranians, they do not want any alcohol at meals. But the French will not take French wine off of the table at official meals. So they've avoided it altogether. There's to be no official lunch or dinner.

MONTAGNE: Thus, no wine.

BEARDSLEY: No wine. There was talk of them perhaps having a breakfast together, but no table where wine would be an issue.

MONTAGNE: Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley speaking to us from Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.