TEHRAN, Iran – The Great Satan still sells in Iran.
Even after decades of diplomatic estrangement and tightening economic sanctions, American products manage to find their way into the Iranian marketplace. The routes are varied: back channel exporters, licensing workarounds and straightforward trade for goods not covered by the U.S. embargoes over Iran’s nuclear program.
It offers lessons in the immense difficulties facing Western attempts to isolate Iran’s economy, which has deepening trade links with Asia where distributors serve as middlemen to funnel U.S. and other goods to Iranian merchants. But sanctions are also battering Iran’s currency and driving up costs for all imports, which could increase domestic pressures on Iran’s ruling system.
Although the number of Made-in-America items in Iran is dwarfed by the exports from Europe, China and neighboring Turkey, some of the best-known U.S. brands can be tracked down in Tehran and other large cities. It’s possible to check your emails on an iPhone, sip a Coke and hit the gym in a pair of Nikes.
I’m always looking for what new Apple products are in the windows, said Kamyar Niaki, a freshman at Tehran’s Azad University, as he played Angry Birds on his iPhone 4S – about $800 in Iran – at a northern Tehran shopping mall popular with young people for its selection of computers, mobile phones, software and apps.
The iPhones and other Apple products typically enter Iran through networks in Dubai or from Asian distributors, which also ship everything from lower-cost MacBook fakes to bogus Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger.
Similar trade routes from the Far East or nearby Dubai also bring in Westinghouse appliances and Microsoft programs. And they were probably also responsible for the Epiphone model guitar by Nashville-based Gibson that Ali Mahmoudi bought for his oldest son last week for about $1,200 – more than double the price in the United States.
The U.S. became vilified as the Great Satan after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Death to America chants remain a staple at Friday prayers at Tehran University. But even Iran’s leadership can’t stamp out the taste for Coke and Pepsi.
Reza Kazemi, a worker at a government-owned Tehran hospital, carried a family-size Coke – 1.5 liters at the equivalent of 50 cents – among his groceries from a shop in downtown Tehran. My wife and three children like it, he said. It’s delicious.