In 2012, Iran significantly stepped up their nuclear enrichment program, and denied IAEA inspectors access to Iranian nuclear facilities. (Source).
In response, the US and Europe stepped up economic sanctions against Iran and cut Iran off from the global banking system. The United States imposed an arms ban and an almost total economic embargo on Iran, which includes sanctions on companies doing business with Iran, a ban on all Iranian-origin imports, sanctions on Iranian financial institutions, and an almost total ban on selling aircraft or repair parts to Iranian aviation companies. Thus, by doing business with Iran, you risked the prospect of secondary sanctions, "which foreign persons who support targeted bad actors can be subject to a number of restricted measures that, in effect, cut-off these businesses from the United States financial system and make them unpalatable as business partners, customers, and suppliers to other foreign parties."
The most prominent example of this that comes to mind is the Chinese company, ZTE:
ZTE admitted to knowingly violating U.S. sanctions and export control
laws by selling sensitive U.S. technology to Iran and to making false
statements about the trade. ZTE falsely claimed that it had
reprimanded employees complicit in the scheme. The company came clean
only when pressed, which led Commerce to conclude that “ZTE still
cannot be relied upon to make truthful statements” and to reactivate
the trade restrictions.
In effect, some companies did see the potential to take advantage of a desperate Iran that would be hurting for trading partners, and hoped to make an advantageous deal. The risk, of course, is that you would upset the US:
On Monday [ed: April 16, 2018], the U.S. government imposed a 7-year ban on American
companies selling hardware and software to the Chinese
telecommunications equipment maker.
ZTE is China’s second-largest telecom vendor, after rival Huawei, and
the 4th largest globally, selling network infrastructure (4G,
wireless, servers, routers and more) and Android smartphones to
carriers worldwide (including China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom,
For all of the types of equipment it makes, ZTE needs many critical
hardware and software components made by U.S. firms including
processors, memory, optics, antennas, screens, operating system or
applications from the likes of Google, Intel, Micron, Qualcomm and
The U.S. export ban effectively stops the availability of all American
technology to the 80,000-employee-strong Chinese company ,
effectively shutting down its factories and sales activities.
And it will take years - if it's even possible to so - for ZTE to
redesign all of its products to find alternatives to U.S.-made
As a result, without any products to sell and missing the crucial 5G
transition revolution, we expect ZTE, a publicly traded company on the
Hong-Kong and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges, to file for bankruptcy in the
next few weeks.
President Trump, of course, saved ZTE from bankruptcy by lifting sanctions on them at a time he was taking a much harder stance against Iran (two weeks after the U.S. withdrawal from the Obama-era Iran nuclear accord and the re-imposition of sweeping U.S. sanctions (Source)), vowing that
President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive
Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too
many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to
get it done!
So perhaps the economic risk of angering the US is subject to the current political tide in the US.