Iranians rebel over price of beloved pistachio

Nasser Karimi • The Associated Press By Ali Akbar Dareini and Brian Murphy / The Associated Press /

Published Apr 3, 2013 at 05:00AM

TEHRAN, Iran — This should be the time of year that nut shop owner Mohammad Ahmadi counts his profits, after the recent Persian new year holiday when Iranians scarf up huge amounts of their iconic snack, pistachios. Instead, he and others in the trade are staring at piles of unsold nuts.

Iranians have rebelled against a nut that is as linked to their national identity as apple pie is to America’s or feta cheese to Greece’s. A Facebook-driven boycott of pistachios has taken off, protesting prices that more than doubled in recent months.

“The number of customers has dropped terribly,” said Ahmadi, looking out at busy streets where few customers turned into his shop in the Salsabil neighborhood of downtown Tehran.

The beloved pistachio has become another casualty of Iran’s sanctions-battered economy. The embracing of the boycott reflects the public dismay over inflation now at 30 percent, ahead of the June presidential election to pick a successor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet, the government, which usually tries to contain Iranians’ anger over the economy, has heartily backed the pistachio boycott — again for reasons tied to the Western-led sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. Pistachio exports provide a small but important pipeline for foreign revenues at a time when sanctions are squeezing Iran’s oil and gas sales. Authorities say fewer nuts consumed at home means more available to sell abroad.

The pale green nuts are Iran’s top non-oil export, though admittedly they are a very distant second. Iran earned at least $750 million last year from exporting the nut, with some estimates as high as $1 billion. That’s a fraction of the around $128 million a day it earns from oil exports. But oil revenues were down some 45 percent last year because of sanctions on the industry, making pistachios an attractively reliable earner.

“Nowadays, any revenue from exports is like a drop of lifeblood for Iran,” said Saeed Leilaz, an economic and political affairs analyst.

Iran is the world’s No. 2 producer of pistachios after the United States, and together the two rivals overwhelmingly dominate the world market in the nut. The U.S. re-imposed a ban on Iranian pistachio imports in 2010, but it had little effect on Iran’s sales since its main customers are in Asia, Europe and the Arab world. In 2012, Iran exported some 110-140 million tons of pistachios, the majority of its production, and the industry employs hundreds of thousands of people.

But at home, Iranians are fuming over the cost of their national snack.

Pistachio prices have soared from about 260,000 rials ($8) a kilo (2.2 pounds) last year to more than 600,000 rials ($17). In some areas, a kilo has reached 800,000 rials, or about $25, according to press reports.

The exact cause for the rapid rise in prices remains somewhat unclear. Iranian pistachio growers do not need to import major parts or machinery, whose costs have skyrocketed with the sinking value of the Iranian rial. The rial is currently trading at more than 35,000 to $1 compared with about 10,000 just two years ago. Prices of all Iranian products have been dragged higher by galloping inflation.

Last month, the head of the pistachio association, Mohsen Jalalpour, said prices at home have been affected by the rising price pistachios get on the international market — compounded by the rial’s fall.

The campaign to boycott the nut was launched on Facebook ahead of last month’s Persian new year, or Nowruz. Demand for pistachios hits an annual high with the new year celebrations, when the nuts are served on nearly every table. Still, they are a treat, not a staple.

Last year, another Internet-driven campaign tried to fuel a boycott on chicken after a similar price spike. That appeal fell flat because chicken is central to the Iranian diet.

The boycott of pistachios, in contrast, has gained a wide following.

“This is the first time that such a campaign has been answered widely,” said Hamed Shabanali, a specialist in information technology. “Word has spread among ordinary people.”

Another information technology specialist, Mahmoud Tehrani, said the boycott showed “how Facebook and virtual world are effective in the Iranian society, now.”

Leila Alipour, a housewife, said she learned about the boycott from her son’s teacher.

“I will not buy any nut this year,” Alipour said in a Tehran bazaar. “It is too expensive.”

Initally, the government in February responded to anger over the rising prices by banning exports of pistachios to increase stocks at home and reduce prices. But it quickly reversed course, lifting the ban within a week and subsequently backing the boycott when it was launched.

State TV, which reflects the views of the ruling clerics, even paid notice of the boycott in an economics show earlier this month. It reported a survey of 1 million people with 87 percent supporting the pistachio boycott.

Ahmadinejad, in a February television interview, called the boycott a “good job.”

Ahmadinejad roadshow: pitching his political heir

TEHRAN, Iran — During a celebration last week to mark the Persian new year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did something quietly remarkable: He stood modestly to the side and let his favored aide have the spotlight.

The gesture was far more than just a rare demure moment from the normally grandstanding leader. It was more carefully scripted stagecraft in Ahmadinejad’s longshot efforts to promote the political fortunes of his chief of staff — and in-law — and seek a place for him on the June presidential ballot that will pick Iran’s next president.

In the waning months of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — weakened by years of internal battles with the ruling clerics — there appears no bigger priority than attempting one last surprise. It’s built around rehabilitating the image of Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei and somehow getting him a place among the candidates for the June 14 vote.

Mashaei has long been a close Ahmadinejad aide, and his daughter is married to the president’s son — a closeness that entails unquestionable loyalty, which is perhaps the main reason why Iran’s clerical establishment is set against him.

To get Mashaei on the list of presidential contenders, Ahmadinejad must do what has eluded him so far: Come out on top in a showdown with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other guardians of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad has been slapped down hard after bold — but ultimately doomed — attempts in recent years to push the influence of his office on policies and decisions reserved for the ruling clerics.

That has left him limping into the end of his eight-year presidency with many allies either jailed or pushed to the political margins. Mashaei is part of the collateral damage.

But the aide has been discredited as part of a “deviant current” that critics say seeks to undermine Islamic rule in Iran and elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia. The smear campaign has even included rumors that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to cloud Ahmadinejad’s judgment.

The prevailing wisdom is that the backlash has effectively killed Mashaei’s chances for the presidential ballot. The ruling clerics vet all candidates and, the theory follows, they seek a predictable slate of loyalists after dealing with Ahmadinejad’s ambitions and disruptive power plays.

In short: Friends of Ahmadinejad need not apply.

Khamenei and others, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, also are hoping to quell domestic political spats that they fear project a sense of instability during critical negotiations with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Yet none of this seems to have discouraged Ahmadinejad, who has been trying to groom Mashaei for years as his potential heir and now appears reluctant to toss his backing behind a less controversial figure.

To that end, the president has hit the road as a cheerleader for Mashaei under the slogan “Long Live Spring.”

At one stop, Ahmadinejad described Mashaei as “a pious man.” At another event he called him “excellent, wise,” and at a third said his adviser has “a heart like a mirror.”

At last week’s event, both men burst into tears as they discussed the need to help children with cancer. Ahmadinejad then “thanked God for having the opportunity to get to know Mashaei.”

Ahmadinejad appears to be banking on his populist appeal to force the Guardian Council — the gatekeepers for the candidates — to consider Mashaei too prominent to reject.

“Ahmadinejad doesn’t want to go out with a whimper. That’s not his style,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. “He wants his legacy, his man, as his successor.”