Will Iran nuclear deal affect Persian businesses in L.A.?

Andy Uhler Aug 19, 2015

Will Iran nuclear deal affect Persian businesses in L.A.?

Andy Uhler Aug 19, 2015

The nuclear deal struck between Iran and the U.N. Security Council is being hotly debated in Congress. In Los Angeles, business people in the largest community of Iranians outside Iran are talking about what an end to sanctions might mean for their businesses.

Walk down Westwood Boulevard and you can duck into a little market and deli called Tochal, where Todd Khodadadi is the manager. “We’re in the Persian Square,” he says. “It’s the middle of the Persian community. Most of the businesses here have a Persian sign and, as we live in the United States, we have a sign in English, too.”

The Persian Square, or Tehrangeles as some locals call it, is an affluent part of the city, with jewelry shops and travel agencies at most intersections. There’s even a Bravo reality TV series, “Shahs of Sunset,” that follows a set of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles. Khodadadi worked in computer software when he lived in Iran 15 years ago. Now he makes a living selling Persian stuff to the Persian community. 

A view of the Persian Square, also known as “Tehrangeles.” (Andy Uhler/Marketplace) 

A lot of his products used to come directly from Iran. Now, the market imports similar products from other countries in the region that aren’t under sanctions. Todd says he can taste the difference. “The best saffron in the world is from Iran,” he says, starting a list. “The best pistachio in the whole world is from Iran. Mulberry – the best one is from Iran. We have similar kinds from Afghanistan, but I can tell you the best one is from Iran.”

Next door is Damoka, a three-story warehouse stocked to the brim with Persian rugs. The store’s owner, Alex Helmi, moved to Los Angeles from Tehran 40 years ago to go to school. After he got his degree, he took over the carpet business from his father. He says he hasn’t been able to import Persian rugs from Iran since the tightening of sanctions in 2010.

Damoka owner Alex Helmi (Andy Uhler/Marketplace) 

While Todd gets the goods for his market by dealing with other countries, Alex gets around his import problems by selling secondhand carpets. The most expensive one in the warehouse will still run a quarter-million dollars. “The Persian carpets are the treasures of the world,” he says. “It’s like diamonds or art.”

But, what about his market share? Won’t more people get into the business if they can suddenly import these rugs? Helmi doesn’t think so. “There are not going to be more people doing it, but the people who are already doing it will have an open supply,” he explains. “You see, right now whatever we sell, we cannot replace. But when the doors open up, hopefully we can replace them.”

And there might be another opportunity for Helmi if trade restrictions are lightened. “So the price right now, as we speak, inside Persia is much higher than inside the United States. We might consider selling our carpets there,” he says.

Persian rugs surround Damoka’s walls. (Andy Uhler/Marketplace) 

Further along Westwood, young Iranian-Americans were snapping selfies next to a shop that advertises Persian pizza. Many people in the area tell me this is exactly the sort of thing you might see walking the streets of Tehran. A bookshop on the corner, here since the early 1980s, houses the Ketab Corporation. 

The storefront of  Persian restaurant Cafe Glace. (Andy Uhler/Marketplace) 

The company’s founder, Bijan Khalili, proudly explains that Ketab was the first company to start translating and publishing titles in Persian in America. “This company is a publishing company. Publishes Iranian yellow pages, Iranian pocket yellow pages.” He says he’s published more than 500 titles. The company also provides communication and information to the Iranian community free of charge.

He says he ended up here because he wasn’t a friend of the revolution in 1979.

Just then, the phone rang. It’s a call from Iran. He settles the call in Farsi and then continues chatting. He’s been in Los Angeles for almost 40 years now, but as he gets up from his desk and shouts some instructions to his employees in Farsi, it’s pretty clear – being from Iran translates to more than just a language or a zip code.

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