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Nuclear deal raises tantalizing question: Will McDonald's return to Iran?

Nuclear deal raises tantalizing question: Will McDonald's return to Iran?
Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, arrives for an address to the nation on the nuclear agreement with the U.S. and five other world powers. Hard-line opponents of the deal have been sharply critical of his administration. (Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Pres)

For some Iranians, the most important question raised by the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers has nothing to do with uranium enrichment or the prospects for the country's economic recovery.

They want to know: Is the Big Mac coming back?

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Since the July 14 announcement of the deal, the question of McDonald's return to Iran — a possible byproduct of the anticipated lifting of Western economic sanctions — has stirred a storm on social media and in dueling reformist and hard-line newspapers.

Many young Iranians are excited by the prospect of a quarter pounder and supersized fries. Others express despair that a preeminent symbol of American culture may not return soon enough — or possibly ever.

"Goodbye falafel - hello McDonalds!" tweeted a young woman identified as Mathaf19, from Ahvaz, in southern Iran.

In a sign of how seriously the issue is being taken, a leading conservative cleric condemned the idea of McDonald's return in a sermon at Friday prayers in Tehran, a venue that typically offers insight into the thinking of the religious elite.

"Some people wish McDonald's to return to Iran," said Reza Taghavi, one of the country's most influential hard-liners, who often reflects the views of the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We cannot stop criticizing it."

The debate reflects how much worry conservative protectors of the Islamic revolution have about potential cultural invasions from the U.S. and the lure that American consumerism may hold for Iranians, particularly the young.

It also demonstrates the intense politics surrounding all aspects of the nuclear agreement in Iran, which is strongly opposed by many hard-line factions.

Taghavi, one of the country's most influential hard-liners, raised the issue as part of an argument about why conservatives should continue to criticize the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which negotiated the nuclear deal.

Though the government is voicing support for its deal with America, the clergyman said, "America is always our enemy."

Mashregnews, a website that reflects the views of hard-liners, recently carried a story describing McDonald's food as a threat to public health and citing demonstrations against it.

The website also denounced Coke and Pepsi, jeans and Marlboro cigarettes. It attacked what it labeled as hypocrisy by Iranians who avidly buy up U.S. brands, while joining demonstrations and shouting "Death to America."

McDonald's return has been a polarizing issue in the country for some time.

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The company, which had stores in Iran before the 1979 revolution, says it has no plans to return. But it has fed speculation by posting on its website an application that would-be franchisees can fill out in case plans change.

Two decades ago, it appeared McDonald's was poised to return to Iran. But conservative leaders and newspapers began speaking out against the idea, and a hard-line militia attacked the site of a proposed restaurant before it could open.

Instead of McDonald's, Iran got knockoff versions, including a restaurant called Mash Donald's. It was not the same, locals said.

The prospect of real American fast food has clearly excited some Iranians. In a recent tweet, a young man illustrated the reaction in Tehran with a picture of a group of excited men pumping their fists and jumping in the air.

Times staff writer Richter contributed from Washington and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.

For more on the Iran nuclear agreement and foreign policy news, follow @richtpau

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