0458 GMT October 17, 2018
"I give it an 82 or 83" out of 100, Azarian said. At the retail price of $80 an ounce in Iran, it was an expensive bite. But beluga caviar is for discerning palates, Los Angeles Times wrote.
"Iranian caviar has a fantastic reputation all around the world," said Azarian, the chairman of Bahoo Caviar, a distributor in Tehran. "It is only going to grow."
As Iran's economy tries to rebound from years of harsh Western sanctions, producers of black caviar — that salt-cured delicacy associated with the rich and famous, with a price tag to match — are also eyeing a comeback.
Once among Iran's most famous exports, the industry nearly collapsed because of trade restrictions and an international clampdown on the capture of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. The long, prehistoric fish, whose glittery, bead-like eggs make the choicest caviar, had been driven nearly to extinction by overfishing.
Now, dozens of Iranian producers are raising sturgeon legally on fish farms, just as the 2015 nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran signed with six world powers has slowly reopened foreign markets to Iranian products.
After the US lifted an embargo on Iranian goods in January 2016, the time when the JCPOA went into effect, the first shipment of Iranian caviar in nearly a decade reached the US last year: A modest 18 pounds of the prized beluga variety, some of which ended up for sale at stores frequented by Iranian expatriates in Los Angeles and other cities.
The shipment was worth about $16,000 before retail markup, or about as much as Iran's $41 billion oil and gas industry generates in 12 seconds. Caviar alone, no matter how costly, is not going to resuscitate Iran's economy.
But the shipment was one signal of a new page in Iran's relations with the West, and a sign that the Islamic Republic was ready to do business with the world again. In two or three years, industry officials said, Iran could export as much as 200 pounds annually to the US as production increases and Iran finds new customers for the luxury food.
"The US is an uncharted but potentially big market for us," said Ali Akbar Khodaei, secretary general of Iran's Fisheries Production and Trading Union, an industry group.
Many economists say Iran needs to find ways to increase exports to create more jobs and bring in foreign currency.
There is potential in Iran's fisheries industry, whose exports rose 80 percent in the most recent quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, said Javad Salehi-Isfahani, an Iranian economics professor at Virginia Tech University.
He added caviar exports are important for generating employment.
"Fisheries are very labor intensive compared to oil and petrochemicals. If there is movement there, it's a sign for policymakers that promoting such exports is a good thing."
The lifting of the Western sanctions is happening at a potentially lucrative time for Iran's caviar industry, which is finally rebounding after decades of struggles.
The industry nearly collapsed during the 1990s and 2000s as the breakup of the Soviet Union — with which Iran shared the Caspian Sea — triggered a torrent of unregulated fishing in one of the world's main habitats for several sturgeon species including the beluga, which produces the most expensive caviar.
In 2005, with data showing the sea's sturgeon population had declined by 90 percent, the US, then the world's No. 1 buyer of beluga caviar, banned the import of beluga products from the Caspian. A few years later, all US trade with Iran ceased as unilateral and global sanctions on Tehran were intensified.
Then, in 2010, sturgeon farming got a boost after Iran signed a ban on sturgeon fishing with Russia and the three other former Soviet republics that are part of the Caspian Sea basin. Iran supplied several fish farms with sturgeon from government stocks, allowing the beluga to grow in concrete pools, some with salt water piped in from the Caspian.
The beluga, with a lifespan of 100 years, typically takes about a decade to begin producing eggs. Within two or three years, industry officials say, Iranian farmed caviar production will rise exponentially.
"We are free from sanctions at the same time as Iranian caviar is ready to be reintroduced to the world market," Khodaei said. "It is a great opportunity."
But challenges remain. There are still a number of financial sanctions imposed by the US against Iran in place, barring Iranian companies from doing business in dollars, meaning the country's sales to the US must be done through informal money transfer systems. That is manageable for relatively small shipments such as caviar, but potentially problematic if volumes rise substantially.
And many Iranian producers worry that the Trump administration's hostility toward Iran and non-commitment to the implementation of the JCPOA would result in Washington withdrawing from the nuclear deal and leveling fresh sanctions against Tehran that could again lead to a severance of ties between Iranian and US companies.
"We don't like this rhetoric from Trump — it's worrisome to us," Khodaei said. "Before the nuclear-related sanctions were imposed, we had relations with buyers around the world."
In recent years, China has accounted for much of the world's caviar production, although its product is widely seen as inferior to Iranian and Russian eggs. Farms in California also have begun to produce black caviar.
But Iranian producers are confident that their caviar will regain customers in the US — and not just among Iranian expatriates.
"In the long term we need to find new clients," Azarian said, sliding a plate of beluga-topped toasts in the direction of his American visitor.