As the deadline approaches for an international deal on Iran’s nuclear programme the business world is scrambling to get a foothold in the enormous potential of a sanctions-free Iran.

Although a major breakthrough in negotiations between Iran and world powers by the 20 July deadline is far from certain, there has been a notable pick-up in interest in dealing with Iran as the Middle East’s third-largest economy appears to be making serious efforts to open up.

However, after landing in Vienna for the talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on 13 July that “significant differences” remained in the two sides’ negotiating positions.

A six-month interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers – China, France, Russia, the UK, the US and Germany – was signed on 24 November 2013 and implemented on 20 January. Since then, however, the parties have been unable to find consensus on long-term restrictions for Tehran’s nuclear development programme.

The lack of significant breakthroughs has led to growing speculation that the deadline will be extended until later in the year.

“The fifth round of Iranian nuclear talks concluded on the 20 June in Vienna with relative progress on drafting the framework of a final deal, while questions over a number of topics remained,” Tehran-based consultancy Turquoise Partners said in its latest update on the talks.

“It is yet not evident whether or not these talks have been successful, as there are still a number of steps left that need to be taken before 20 July,” the consultancy said.

Since the appointment of the more-moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in August 2013 and the interim nuclear deal, many countries in the region have taken a softer public approach towards relations with Tehran.

GCC countries could stand to gain much from expanding economic ties with the sleeping giant across the Gulf, but the two sides have long had a difficult relationship.

Iran and key US-ally Saudi Arabia remain rival geopolitical and sectarian powers in the region, while the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the UAE has been damaged by tension over three disputed islands.

However, Tehran has maintained varyingly friendly relations Kuwait, Qatar and Oman and there are now signs of tensions lifting with the UAE.

Earlier in the year, Oman signed a deal to import gas through a proposed pipeline from Iran and Kuwait has entered similar talks with the Islamic Republic over a gas deal.

In January, the UAE Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum urged the US and other world powers to scrap economic measures targeting Iran’s banks and energy sector. He later accepted an invitation to visit Tehran.

Iran has long been a key trade partner with the UAE, especially Dubai, but their bilateral relationship has been strained by political tensions with the UAE’s powerful Washington allies.

Prior to the tightening of sanctions in 2012, Iran was the UAE’s second-largest market for the export of non-oil goods and re-exports, and its fourth-largest trading partner overall.

In 2008, the UAE exported $13.2bn of goods to Iran compared with a combined $1.58bn from the other five GCC countries, according to statistics from the Washington-headquartered IMF.

According to Dubai Customs, merchandise trade dropped 31 per cent in 2012 to AED25bn ($6.8bn), but rebounded marginally in 2013 to AED26bn.

There are also strong social ties between Iran and Dubai, with about 400,000 people of Iranian decent estimated to be living in the UAE emirate.

In spite of political constraints, the GCC countries would all stand to prosper from boosting relationships with Iran if the economy across the Gulf opens for business.

Iran’s oil and gas sector has enormous potential, but has been struggling under the weight of international sanctions with key projects stalled and existing infrastructure in need of modernisation.

International companies have all but left Iran’s energy sector, hindering the country’s ability to complete key projects such as the development of the South Pars gas fields and associated liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities.

France has been openly courting business interests in Iran and in February allowed more than 100 business leaders to visit Tehran on a trade mission, including representatives from automotive groups Peugeot and Renault, energy major Total and aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

However, the US was quick to warn France that it risked undermining sanctions as the trade mission could give the false impression that Iran was “open for business”.

In April, the US Treasury awarded US aircraft maker Boeing and the conglomerate GE a licence to sell spare parts to Iran’s beleaguered aviation industry.

Meanwhile, US-based World Eco Energy recently announced it had signed a preliminary agreement to invest $1.2bn in a joint commercial waste-to-energy project in Iran.

Although news coming out of early discussions in Vienna is far from positive, the medium-term outlook for doing business with Iran has significantly improved in just a year and international companies will most likely continue positioning themselves for deals should the economy finally open up.

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