Fast food restaurant chains are an essential part, for better or for worst, of American culture and through globalization, their presence is felt all over the world. Head to any large city in the world, and you are bound to see restaurants such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Starbuck’s etc…filled with locals.
This is true about Iran as well but in Iran the situation is more complicated because of two simple facts:
- Sanctions and Isolation: Up until the JCPoA, Iran’s markets have been isolated from Western brands and litigations against rip-offs.
- US-Iran Relations: The relationship between Tehran and the US (“The Great Satan”) have been sour since 1979 and remain sour even post-JCPoA.
The fate of American fast food chain stores in Iran represents a microcosm of the complicated relations between a) the Iranian people and America, b) the regime in Tehran and America, c) the American brands and their Iranian rip-offs Pre-JCPoA and Post-JCPoA and d) the regime in Tehran and the Iranians
The conflict between the Iranian’s appetite for American fast food and the regime’s hate for America might become a focal point between the “Revolutionary Ideals” of the regime and the personal freedom of choice of Iranians as the JCPoA comes into effect.
Iranian People and America
Let’s face it, Iranians have hunger for American fast food chain restaurants even if they are rip-offs of the original brands: Brands such as Mash Donald’s (McDonald’s with golden arches and Ronald McDonald) , Baskin Robbins (31 flavors but Italian gelato), Chipotle (Mexican food and also pizza and chicken wings), Domino’s Pizza, KFC (many many chains), Raees Coffee (the Iranians Starbuck’s), Pizza Hat (Pizza Hut with a Dick Tracy-like logo), Burger House (yep, Burger King) and Subways (no-ham Subway) are a testament to this fact.
This demand for Western fast food in Iran isn’t based on how tasty (open to discussion) or how nutritious (who hasn’t seen “Supersize Me”?) the food really is. No, this demand is for American culture. When you bite into a Big Mac, whether you are in Miami, Prague, Melbourne, Tokyo, Nairobi or Tehran, you are biting into American culture and its resulting globalization.
But the situation in Tehran is stranger than in most cities since the Big Mac (called the Mash Donald’s baguette burger) is being eaten in a restaurant that is a rip-off of the American brands in an atmosphere filled with anti-American propaganda. It’s a miracle that such chain stores even exist under such circumstances but the Iranian people who may not have the chance to vote for Iran’s foreign policy vis-à-vis America can vote for American culture by simply taking a bite of a Big Mac or some fried chicken.
The fact that most of the customers at these restaurants are either younger, richer or more educated Iranians only increases the contrast between these customers and the regime they live under.
Regime in Tehran and America
The nuclear deal was supposed to end the 36 year enmity between Tehran and Washington. It didn’t: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei anti-American sentiment during the negotiations only increased once the JCPoA was signed, not out of fear of an American military conflict but out of his fears of “American infiltration”.
What “infiltration”? Well, for one, Khamenei has accepted the influx of foreign brands and trade but is blocking the Iranian markets from US brands. Ali Fazeli, the head of the Iranian chamber of commerce: “In accordance with orders from the Supreme Leader, we do not give any authorization to Western brands”.
Make no mistake – there are plenty of American brands in Iran including Pepsi and Coca Cola but these are only “products”. Restaurants are not only establishments for selling products, they provide an environment in which to eat and as such, have come under much more scrutiny by the regime.
When Khamenei talks about “American infiltration” he wants Iranians to believe that he is talking about spies who want to change the politics of the country as can clearly be understood in his efforts to explain that the “Death to America” calls are not aimed at Americans but against “arrogant” American governments and policies. In fact, Khamenei is less worried of the effects of American policies as he is of American culture. Khamenei doesn’t want American brands dotting the landscape of Iran and, in the process, weakening his anti-American rants.
American Brands and Iranian Rip-Offs
These chain stores are all rip-offs of the American brands and have survived to date due to the isolation of the Iranian economy and the inability of the international brands to sue them for copyright infringement. None of these brands would have a chance in an international court even if some actually did change the names or the logos a bit.
The case of KFC is an interesting one: KFC existed in Iran pre-1979 but had to close down following the dominant anti-American sentiment. Local rip-offs sprouted rapidly including brands such as “Super Star Fried Chicken”, “Kabooky Fried Chicken”, “Karen Fried Chicken”, “ZFC”, “BFC”, “KFChalal”, etc…Most of them have the red and white logo with the smiling Colonel Sanders and some even have the ubiquitous KFC buckets and the “Colonel Sanders recipe”.
“KFChalal“, a newcomer on the market and affiliated with a chain from Turkey opened up last week with lots of fanfare and pictures of line-ups for the chicken. Within 2 days the restaurant was shut down for being “too American” in its décor. Up to now, all the original brands gave up on any aspirations to sue the rip-offs but once the JCPoA will take effect, they will probably rethink their positions: Since Khamenei won’t allow their brands to profit in the Iranian markets, they might resort to the next best thing: Suing.
The Iranian courts may find such efforts laughable but a) the Americans can turn to international courts and b) other large brands will be looking on to see how well protected they will be under Iranian law.
The Iranian Regime and the Iranian People
The irony of an Iranian chanting “Death to America” and then stopping in for a Big Mac must hurt Khamenei deeply since is it symbolizes the weakness of his regime: These customers may love being Muslims and may even accept the harsh laws of the regime, but when they are hungry, they become just like any non-Iranian – “Revolutionary ideals” and the yearning for “martyrdom” are replaced with…American food.
This conversation with Siavah Mirteki, a 29 year old Iranian eating at Mash Donald’s pretty well sums it all up: “This falafel sandwich is fantastic…of course if McDonald’s comes, I’ll go there too. When I went on pilgrimage to Mecca we would go to McDonald’s every evening. In our country, we have two governments…(Rouhani represents the official one seeking to improve relations with the United States) but there are other groups, too, that still don’t like America…They can barely tolerate Mash Donald’s, let alone the real thing.”
Khamenei’s fears of American “infiltration” are share shared by his hardliner cronies and the IRGC. Rouhani, on the other hand, is trying to tone down these fears but Khamenei demoted him to the back stage post-JCPoA, effectively taking over the implementation of the nuclear deal and foreign policy.
President Hassan Rouhani might talk about “constructive engagement” with the West and might even secretly desire a bucket of KFC but even he understands that American fast food is not a simply issue: Iranians might love the freedom of choice to eat it but it is exactly this freedom that is a thorn in Khamenei’s side. And Khamenei knows how to treat thorns – he just takes them out.