After more than a century of sour trade disputes with Russia and years of U.S. commercial sanctions, the famous Iranian caviar is emerging as a revolutionary business card which few markets turn down.
The round, blue caviar can bearing an Islamic sun shining over the Caspian Sea is one of the world's top luxury commodities. And thanks to a recent decree by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the little black eggs of the sturgeon are no longer an Islamic no-no, and Iranians enjoy caviar with a glass of tea and a splash of lemon as a morning snack.
The "pearl of the Caspian" is flowing to the most exquisite tables in the capitalist West and the communist East with an unwritten but clear message: Iranian is best.
"We are not only after the money, our emphasis is on prestige," says Homayun Moradi, 30, managing director of Shilat Trade Corp., Iran's government agency for fisheries exports.
'100% National Industry'
"Foreign dealers no longer set the pace of our production, and the caviar industry no longer runs for a handful of local businesmen," he said in an interview in this port city about 312 miles north of Tehran. "Caviar has become a 100% national industry for benefit of Iranians."
He said Soviet caviar is no threat, saying the difference between Soviet and Iranian caviar is "similar to that between a Toyota and Mercedes-Benz."
Exports climbed to a record 130 tons this year, producing estimated revenues of about $30 million, despite a U.S. freeze on Iranian exports following the 1979 hostage crisis. Iranian caviar flows to restaurants in America through intermediaries and "the demand has never dropped one single point," Moradi said.
The Soviets, who have long been at odds with Iran over fisheries and trade conflicts, no longer buy Iranian caviar to put it into the market as produce of their own, Moradi said.
Industry Planning Ahead
And as France, West Germany, Switzerland and other European countries put in orders for Iranian caviar, the industry is planning ahead.
A research center and huge fish farming installations in the outskirts of the city of Rasht are producing millions of baby sturgeon every year.
Born in laboratories and kept in special pools until they are slightly bigger than a match stick, the sturgeon are released to the Sefid-Rud River, where they live until they are big enough to swim into the Caspian Sea.
Tough anti-pollution laws are preventing the installation of heavy industries along Iran's 560-mile-long Caspian coast, making an ideal habitat for schools of sturgeon and other sea life.
While the Soviet Union's northern half of the sea is colder and highly contaminated by chemical waste dumped by thousands of factories along the Volga River, the Iranian side is cleaner, warmer and more appealing for sturgeon.
Lighter Than Soviet Type
Iranian caviar is in fact brighter and lighter than the Soviet, and connoisseurs agree that there is no parallel to the Iranian "golden caviar" extracted from the bellies of asetras, one of the three varieties of sturgeon living in the Caspian.
Taste in caviar varies with the market. Europeans, for example, are keen on the sevruga class, which is ash-colored and somewhat transparent, while the beluga is very popular worldwide.
Workers use a special knife to open the sturgeon's abdomen and the eggs are treated in a salt and boric acid solution before they are washed in a marble container. Wooden spoons later stuff them into sterilized cans.
"It is a high-risk job and it requires a lot of care," said Akbar Mohammadi, who runs one of the 49 fishing stations along the coast. That care pays off in his daily catch, which brings in more money each day than an average jewelry store.
Check Brightness, Odor
The simplest way to test the freshness of caviar is to check its brightness and odor. Old caviar is pale in color and extreme in odor.
Even the broken eggs, called pressed caviar, are processed and packed for Iran's growing domestic consumption.
Caviar is helping Iran to solve old political and religious riddles while becoming increasingly popular among Iranians, who had shunned caviar because of an Islamic law that banned consumption of sturgeon and other scaleless fish.
Muslims, who are also forbidden to eat pork, are said to have always been suspicious about caviar because the rule on scaleless fish did not specifically mention sturgeon eggs.
It is said that in the 19th Century, the Russians, who had always had an eye on Iran's fishing grounds in the Caspian Sea, persuaded a number of clergymen to pass a decree saying caviar-eating was against Islam.
But in 1983, the fisheries department discovered that scattered protuberances in the sturgeon's plain, smooth skin were actually scales, just like the tiny plaques in the fish's thin tail.
In answering a letter of scientific and religious inquiry, Khomeini finally gave the green light for sturgeon-eating, and the soft-boned fish with its delicate eggs rapidly gained a market.