Sanctions have hurt Iran’s coffee sector – but a new landscape has emerged

iran coffee cafe
  • Since the late 1970s, Iran has been affected by international sanctions
  • Domestic coffee consumption per capita grew by 21% between 2018 and 2019
  • Sanctions have forced Iran’s coffee businesses to change their approach

SINCE THE Iranian revolution in 1979, the US has imposed some of the world’s toughest sanctions on Iran.

Aimed at punishing the country for its nuclear arms programme, the sanctions are seen as a way of isolating Iran and forcing the government to the negotiating table.

However, like all sanctions, the government isn’t the only one affected.

Since the introduction of stricter measures in early 2018, Iran’s currency, the rial, has steadily devalued, making imports significantly more expensive. Meanwhile, high inflation means the cost of living has risen, with the prices of some food items increasing by more than 110%.

Iran’s burgeoning coffee industry has not been immune. Although traditionally a tea-drinking nation, Iran’s consumers have increasingly turned to coffee over the last two decades, particularly among the younger generations. Between 2018 and 2019, domestic coffee consumption per capita grew by a fifth.

However, to avoid incurring penalties, most international coffee traders have ceased working directly with local roasters and cafes.

Instead, they send the coffee to Dubai or Turkey first, which causes significant delays to deliveries. In some cases, the green coffee can take up to seven or eight months after a harvest to arrive.

Furthermore, access to courses and international coffee events, such as those offered by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), has been severely restricted. This has stifled the ability of Iranian coffee professionals to keep up with the sector’s latest developments.

“Sanctions have had a noticeable impact on the coffee industry in Iran,” says Fariba, who works as a coffee researcher in Tehran. “They have made us isolated in almost every way.

“Iranians who don’t have residency in other countries are not allowed to participate in international coffee courses and events, which is the hardest of all.

“They have also caused Iran many economic issues and devalued its currency. So in many areas, such as buying and importing green coffee beans and coffee equipment, there are a lot of challenges.

“It also caused a rise in the price of cafes and roastery products, which make it harder for people to justify buying coffee.”

barista in iran making a coffee

Pushing forward

While sanctions have undoubtedly hit Iran’s coffee industry, it has also opened up unique opportunities. In particular, the absence of international chains such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee has allowed domestic coffee businesses to develop more freely.

“It’s been very difficult, but it’s interesting for us because we have to innovate,” says Mohsen Majidikhah, the owner of Tehran-based Sam Cafe, in a recent Al Jazeera interview. “When I compare myself with people running businesses abroad, I feel I am doing better because we have to invent our own things here.”

This sentiment is echoed by Fariba, who says that the growing interest in specialty coffee has led to the formation of events outside of the globally established bodies.

“After the merging of the SCAE and SCAA in 2017, Iran has been banned from holding those courses,” she says. “But there are still many coffee courses, events, and competitions which are held without the SCA support.”

Those with expertise in the specialty coffee community have also helped, offering online classes, training, books, websites, and podcasts in Farsi, Iran’s official language. According to Fariba, this, alongside local events and competitions, has been essential to retaining interest and pushing the industry forward.

“Even though there’s no further international participation, it keeps young people motivated and willing to grow. Despite the impact of sanctions, we don’t like to think that we have been forgotten – so we try to keep it up and improve ourselves in any way we can.”