Iranian-American Entrepreneurs Hope to Do More Business After Nuclear Deal
Idin Deeb in the warehouse of Kalamala, the online Persian food company he started when just a teenager. (Blair Wells)
The new nuclear deal with Iran has some Californians salivating, quite literally. That's because the deal will lift longtime bans on the imports of food and carpets after Iran meets certain obligations to change its nuclear program, possibly as soon as next summer. With more than 200,000 people of Persian descent in California, that has piqued the interest of some Iranian entrepreneurs here.
They include Idin Deeb, who immigrated to the Los Angeles area from Tehran with his parents at the age of 5. As such, the Persian food distributor knows something about the little longings of his homesick patrons.
"It's candies and gums and prepared foods of certain brands that no one else can get quite right, " says Deeb, "I've had people wax poetic for 25 minutes about a gumball before."
Deeb, 27, started his company, Kalamala, as a hobby when he was just 15 with the help of his dad, who imports olive oils from around the world.
"I was always raised with that kind of Iranian-American entrepreneurial mindset, even from a young age. There was no allowance or anything like that. You wanna buy this, how are you gonna make the money to do it?" remembers Deeb. "And I knew that there were Persians all throughout the U.S. who were looking for certain ingredients and items. "
Deeb fields regular calls from people in the Iranian diaspora desperate, after more than three decades of trade bans, for what he calls "nostalgic foods," which are laden with memories of childhood and homeland. Walking through his Van Nuys warehouse, Deeb demonstrates how two sugar loaves are rubbed together over a couple during their wedding ceremony to bless them with sweetness.
"You see, there's a sprinkling of sugar," says Deeb.
Deeb found a local Southern California woman who makes these sugar loaves, an example of how he's had to get creative -- because of sanctions, none of his products are actually from Iran. Teas are often from India, and other products come from places as far as China. He says he's hoping that thawing relations will soon allow him to import authentic Persian foods.
"We're hoping that once the embargo has dropped and relations have normalized a little bit," says Deeb, "that this room will be filled with stuff that's all foreign labeling and been produced in Iran."
Since the embargo, he says, there's been an explosion when it comes to literacy around foreign cuisine. A foodie at heart, he's most eager to see the flavors he loves make their mark here.
"I'm really, really excited to see great Western chefs get their hands on traditional Iranian ingredients that have been used for thousands of years," says Deeb.
While Deeb could have his way relatively soon, sanctions expert Sam Cutler of Ferrari and Associates in Washington, D.C., says the trade opening is still very narrow.
"There's very little actually changing if you're inside the United States," says Cutler.
Cutler warns that most transactions between the U.S. and Iran -- whether business or personal -- will still be banned. That means people can still get in trouble for shipping products with possible military uses.
"You've seen over the past couple of years a number of prosecutions of individuals for shipping items to Iran that may not be thought to be sensitive," says Cutler, "like MRI coils or air-conditioning equipment."
Cutler says the U.S. will lift sanctions only around foreign subsidiaries, commercial airplane parts, food and carpets.
Siamak Shamouilzadeh has been in that business for three decades. He shows off one of his favorite pieces in his Ariana Rug Gallery in Los Gatos, a Kashan from the 1880s. While he says traditional rugs like these have fallen out of favor with Americans, he’s confident of their enduring value.
"As far as rugs go, Persian rugs are amongst the very best in the world," says Shamouilzadeh.
With craft culture all the rage these days, Shamouilzadeh is optimistic about a comeback for handmade Persian rugs. He still has connections to rug makers in Iran, and hopes that once the trade ban is lifted, he can travel back and forth to commission rugs for American clients.
"[They could] focus on the type of pattern and designs and colors that would be more usable in this country and, in that manner, expand production," he says.
While Shamouilzadeh is looking forward to his own business opportunities, he says he's even more hopeful that increased trade will help make lives easier for people back in Iran.
Many people share that sentiment, says attorney Nazy Fahimi of the Persian community organization Pars Equality Center. But she advises people to consult a lawyer before doing any business in Iran. (The Treasury Department has a mind-bogglingly detailed informational page about Iran sanctions here.)
"The majority of folks that we talk to are very excited about this deal," says Fahimi. "But unfortunately, and what we're most concerned about, is that they might be overly eager."
The center is currently hosting an ongoing series of seminars to teach the Iranian community what it can -- and still can't -- do if the embargo lifts.