TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — At a trendy restaurant in Iran’s capital, customers sip Coca-Cola through bending straws as waiters bring caddies to their tables full of Heinz ketchup and two types of Tabasco sauce.
Welcome to dining in the Islamic Republic, brought to you by America.
Whether at upscale restaurants or corner stores, American brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi can be seen throughout Iran despite the heightened tensions between the two countries.
U.S. sanctions have taken a heavy toll on oil and other major industries in the country of 80 million people, but Western food, movies, music and clothing are still widely available. And 40 years after the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, despite billboards and rallies declaring “Death to America,” Iranians — particularly the young — embrace U.S. products.
“The American lifestyle is very attractive,” said Ahmad Rezaee, a 21-year-old student at Tehran University who drained two bottles of Coke while out with a friend. Coca-Cola “portrays that lifestyle for us.”
Tensions have soared following the Trump administration’s decision last year to withdraw from Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and restore sanctions. In recent weeks Iran has begun openly breaching limits set by the accord, saying it cannot abide by the deal unless other signatories provide economic relief.
Despite that, drinking a “Coca” or a Pepsi after eating kebab in Iran comes as second nature, though the soft drinks don’t taste quite as syrupy or sweet as their American counterparts. Both brands are bottled by local firms, Khoshgovar Mashhad Co. for Coca-Cola and Sasan Co. and Neysun Shargh Co. for Pepsi, which are affiliated with the Imam Reza Foundation, an economic conglomerate tied to the country’s Shiite theocracy.
Coca-Cola held a 28% market share in Iran, according to a 2016 report by research firm Euromonitor International, while Pepsi had around 20%.
Asked about Coca-Cola sales in Iran, the Atlanta-based company said it had sold concentrate to Iran for over 20 years in line with U.S. sanctions policies.
“The authorizations are very restrictive in nature,” Coca-Cola said. “The company does not have any ownership interest in the Iran bottler and does not have any tangible assets in Iran.”
Pepsi did not respond to requests for comment. Pittsburgh-based Kraft Heinz Co. said that “like many Western companies, a few of our products are made available via a local Iranian distributor.” The McIlhenny Co. of Avery Island, Louisiana, the maker of Tabasco, said it “expressly prohibits its distributors from reselling Tabasco brand products in Iran.”