On a visit to the United States in the early 1980s, Iranian farmer Falli Karbassian remembers seeing a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in California. It read: " 'Would you rather buy pistachios from this?' and there was a picture of a little man leading a camel through the desert." she says. " 'Or from this?' and there was a picture of a California beauty."
There are only two places in the world where large commercial orchards of pistachio nuts are grown: Iran's humidity-free southeast and in the US, primarily in California. This fact has added another ingredient to troubled relations between the two countries, as farmers battle to capture the growing market for the green nuts.
Since the 1980s, American sanctions against Iran and protective tariffs have enabled US growers to corner the domestic US market for their younger industry, and so be strong enough to take on Iranian export of the nuts - which are cheaper, larger, and considered by many to be more desirably flavored.
But the combative relationship has also helped create new overseas markets for both sides, and has created an odd symbiosis. Several big California growers are Iranian families - some even have farms in Iran, too, and so sell both styles of pistachios.
Farmers in Iran say they have improved their crops with technical reports written by US experts, and some say they would welcome American investment in processing facilities and orchards.
Cooperation was close before the Islamic revolution in 1979. "When I was a kid, US growers would come," says Ms. Karbassian, who represents her family's fifth generation of pioneer pistachio farmers and lives in Tehran. "They took different samples and varieties and tried to match Iranian nuts. But the same seed grows differently there."
Bringing in between $500 million and $600 million a year, pistachios are so important to Iran that a special committee reports directly to the president. They are Iran's third-largest export after oil and carpets.
Pistachios are important locally also. The most famous son from Rafsanjan, a town in the midst of pistachio country, is former president Hashemi Rafsanjani - scion on a wealthy local family who some describe at the "King of Pistachios."
Yet regardless of the political situation, more snackers are always being found. Russia ate hardly a single nut six years ago and now imports 15,000 tons a year. In just five years Spain has jumped to 11,000 tons. Europe overall now has an annual taste for 90,000 tons.
And even though Israel and Iran are sworn enemies, Israelis gobble up Iranian pistachios that have been channeled through Turkey and are marked as produce from there.
All this pistachio popularity comes from humble beginnings. "It started with faith," says Iranian farmer Mehdi Agah, describing his father's efforts eight decades ago to convince locals in Kerman to plant seeds that would not bear nuts for eight to 10 years.
In those days, pistachios graced delicacy trays only in czarist Russia. The first bags exported to the West were sold to Syrian Christians in New York. For decades, sales in the US East Coast propelled Iranian orchards.
"This is what makes the taste," says Mansour Moin, an Iranian farmer for 20 years, as he kicks at the soil in one of his best orchards near Rafsanjan. "It's not clay; it's sandy earth."
Mr. Moin inspects the crinkly green pistachio leaves that are ready to drop off in the late autumn. the harvest is finished for the year, and he is beginning to replace his flood watering system with much more efficient - and expensive - drip irrigation that will save 70 percent of the precious water.
"If we didn't have a water problem, all of Iran would go to pistachios," he says with a smile.
Yet after a bumper year last year, Iran's harvest is down 85 percent; the American crop is down some 40 percent, too, after two good years. And although Iran exports twice as many nuts as the US, deliveries to Europe were halted in 1997 because of stringent European Commission (EC) regulations about levels of toxic aflatoxin, which comes from mold.
The the Fresno-based California Pistachio Commission has spent nearly $2 million in advertising campaigns to get its foot in the door of the Europe market during Iran's absence, but Mr. Agah, one of the Iranian farmers, says that such efforts have backfired before: US growers have opened new markets that were later overwhelmed by Iran's cheaper nuts.
"Four years ago I was in China, and I saw American nuts everywhere," he says. "Now 80 percent of pistachios sold to China are from Iran. Pistachios have great potential."
Indeed, restrictions have already eased on Iranian exports to Europe, as a Swiss trade journal has noted that EC teams to Iran have found "truly great strides in hygienic processing."
As Washington and Tehran eye the possibility of renewing ties, some US farmers are anxious. "No marketing program that can be conceived will be able to stem the negative impact of millions of pounds of low-quality, low-price foreign pistachios if they should be dumped in the US," the California commission warns in an annual report. "Right now we are safe ... but keep reading the newspapers."
Assertions that Iranian nuts are "low quality," however, are not born out elsewhere in the report. A study by the California commission of Israelis - among the heaviest pistachio consumers - found that "the research, while very detailed, did not provide marketing suggestions other than changing the roast to make California pistachios taste more like Iranian."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society