Opinion

An Israeli in Tehran's High-tech Court: One Can Dream, Right?

The high-tech business potential is huge in Iran, where masses of 20- to 35-year-olds speak the same tech language as in Israel. Too bad contact with them remains virtual, for now

In this Monday, May 23, 2017, photo, staffers of the Snapp online taxi company work at their office in Tehran, Iran. Iran remains in many ways cut off economically from the rest of the world, fueling a surprisingly active local tech startup scene. Itג€™s driven by a growing number of Iranian millennials who see their country as a market ripe with opportunity. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

I’ve got a flight: Turkish Airways, leaving from Tel Aviv, stopping in Istanbul and continuing to Tehran. Short, sweet, and not even so expensive: only $530. Using the Iranian app PINTAPIN I found the Ferdowsi Hotel, a four-star hotel, at $1,112 for eight nights, breakfast included, compared to $1,345 on Booking.com. See, I saved more than $200 that I’ll be able to blow in the bazaar.

Although I missed the big video gaming conference that took place in Tehran over the weekend, and hosted more than 30 firms from all over the world – I’ll arrive in time for the Sport Science Conference on Tuesday, in the northern city of Amol in Iran, and even for the International Exhibition of Stationery, Office and Engineering Tools that opens later this week, in Tehran.

I’ll be able to get around in the country by using the SNAPP app – the Iranian version of Gett Taxi or Uber, which boasts more than 100,000 taxi drivers, and claims to have already moved five million people. Trips through the app cost 30 percent to 50 percent less than regular taxi fares.

In this Monday, May 23, 2017, photo, Mostafa Meisami, driver of the Snapp online taxi company works with his smartphone at his car in Tehran, Iran. Iran remains in many ways cut off economically from the rest of the world, fueling a surprisingly active local tech startup scene. Itג€™s driven by a growing number of Iranian millennials who see their country as a market ripe with opportunity.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

During my free time at the luxury hotel, which offers free internet, I can peruse the Benita website, which gets more than two million visitors a month. It was set up by five young women to provide high-quality information about the daily lives of Iranian women. You can get more information about Benita from the TechRasa website, which is in English and focuses on Iran’s internet industry, especially its startups.

TechRasa reports that Iran’s search engines get more than 700,000 queries a day (compared to 4.5 billion on Google), that the government has invested more than $13 million in broadening the internet infrastructure for these search engines – and that more than 2,000 people attended the video games conference I missed.

Iranian startup entrepreneurs didn’t wait for the international nuclear agreement to be signed and for the economic sanctions to be removed before launching their activities. Actually, it was because of the sanctions that local techies felt compelled to find ways to connect to the rest of the world – sometimes by violating the law and risking arrest. SNAPP, for example, was launched in 2014; Benita began operating in 2015. Now these startups are hoping to reap the fruits of their labors and to get on the exit bandwagon by offering foreign companies access to a market of more than 80 million Iranians.

In this Sunday, May 22, 2017 photo, a photographer for the Bamilo online shopping site shoots a photo of a model wearing women's clothing to be featured for sale on their website, in Tehran, Iran. Iran remains in many ways cut off economically from the rest of the world, fueling a surprisingly active local tech startup scene. Itג€™s driven by a growing number of Iranian millennials who see their country as a market ripe with opportunity.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

The business potential is enormous, both in the field of online advertising and in terms of market penetration, and could be a huge temptation for Western high-tech companies that are familiar with Iran’s technological knowledge base.

According to data published by ZDnet – a business technology news website – the number of internet users jumped 21 percent in Iran last year, but only 40 percent are connected to cellular networks using 3G or 4G technology. There have been 40 million downloads of the Telegram messaging app, and the use of Instagram and other websites for business purposes has grown.

In an interview with ZDnet, Niki Aghaei, a creative consultant in Tehran, said that city residents, who sometimes spend three to four hours a day on the road, are thrilled at being able to do business online. “The ease of doing everything online is that you don’t have to spend another half hour or another hour in traffic to make your payments,” she noted.

Did you really think I was going to check all this out on-site? Unfortunately, the dream of flying to Tehran, staying at the Ferdowsi and enjoying the wealth of Iranian apps will have to wait. Iran is still an enemy country. But its people, more than 60 percent of whom are between 20 and 35 years old, speak the language of high-tech. And it's the same language they speak in Israeli tech and business hubs in Herzliya, Atidim or Yokne’am.