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Shipping ahoy: Mending broken hearts and noses in Tehran

'There is no place like Iran in the world, Iran is the heart of the world, And we are people of heart'.

So went the poem quoted by the master of ceremonies at the conference held by the National Iranian Tanker Company in Tehran, the day after nuclear sanctions were lifted. Iran the heart of the world? That may be stretching the point a little but there's no doubt something significant has happened here over the last couple of days.

The imminent return of Iranian oil to the global market, happily coinciding with the 60th anniversary of NITC's foundation, prompted the company to invite a host of businesses to Tehran in anticipation of renewing activities which were interrupted by the tightening of sanctions in 2012.

The number of attendees - perhaps not as many as the official number of 650 people, comprising 300 from overseas and 350 from Iran, but still enough to be impressive - showed how significant this country is for the international business community.

Moreover, the range of companies in attendance, including but not limited to shipbrokers, shipowners, ship managers, trading houses, classification societies and IT suppliers, demonstrated the desire for market participants to grab a piece of the action as Iran's doors open once more.

Coming at a time when oil prices have crashed and tanker freight rates have started 2016 on the slide, these businesses recognise the return of a major global player as a potential opportunity that cannot be ignored.

For the Iranians themselves, this marks the end of a very challenging period. During the conference, the former managing director of NITC Mohammad Souri spoke of the difficult times for the company finally being over.

NITC has had arguably the most challenging experience of any shipping company over the past 30 years. The recent sanctions aside, the company shipped 2.5 million tons of crude oil per day during the late 1980s at the height of the war with Iraq.

Its vessels came under attack over 200 times during the Iran-Iraq war and more than 150 sailors were killed.

While mindful of these experiences, NITC is keen to turn a new page and the talk now is of international cooperation, foreign investment and, significantly, diversification.

NITC's managing director Ali Akbar Safaei told Platts that the strategic plan is to diversify the company's sources of income, relying not just on crude oil revenues but also shipping more LPG, LNG and even providing offshore services.

NITC is ready to partner with foreign investors and intends to list a portion of its shares on the international market.

At a time of falling freight rates, Mr Safaei was keen to stress that the company would not bring more than its existing 15.4 million deadweight of vessel capacity to the market. However this would still allow for some purchasing of second hand or even new-building tonnage, which would be offset by scrapping older vessels.

The overriding message from the Tehran gathering is that Iran is open for business, and from spending just a few days in Tehran that's the wider impression the city gives.

Our first meaningful interaction with an Iranian was with an elderly gentleman on the flight into Tehran from Dubai. Delighted that a British citizen was visiting his country, he immediately offered to share a cab into the city.

At the conference, a Norwegian delegate told us about bumping into a young Iranian man while walking in the city, who then happily spent 45 minutes showing him around.

The sophistication and modernity of the Iranian youth are there to see in a country whose official name portrays conservatism.

On a walk around the bazaars of Tehran, it is a common sight to see young men and women walking around holding hands, along with scores of ladies with bandaged noses after undergoing plastic surgeries.

Tourist attractions in Tehran include the Shah's old palaces which, despite representing an era that the revolution did away with, have been respectfully preserved and put on display.

In the same way, with both a keen sense of history and hard-won experience as well as a new sense of outward-facing optimism, NITC and the country as a whole turns its heart and its head towards the next chapter on the world stage.