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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

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Iranian traders hope privatisation will bring "caviar renaissance"

By Jean Michel Cadiot

TEHRAN, Aug 31 (AFP) - Caviar, for long a key part of Iranian feasts, has become out of reach even for wealthy Iranians, but traders are pinning their hopes on privatisation to bring about a renaissance.

"There is no solution other than the privatisation that the government has accepted. And we will be able to sell to the Americans who have ended their embargo on this product," explained businessman Behrouz Neshati, who travels frequently to Britain and the United States.

"I believe in its renaissance," said Neshati, who spent his childhood on the edge of the Caspian Sea where caviar is produced. "Why not revive those feasts of our childhood with caviar."

Jamshid Salimi, the only provider of the luxury food produced from the eggs of the sturgeon fish in the chic Mirdamad Avenue area of Tehran, does not sell more than five or six kilos (11 or 13 pounds) of caviar per month.

"Caviar is going through a difficult period, mainly because of the pollution of the Caspian . Private companies could organise the protection of the environment more effectively, protect the sturgeons," he said.

"Our prices are prohibitive," Salimi complained. "We have practically only foreigners as clients -- French, Italians, but also Russians who love Iranian caviar."

"But caviar is no longer part of the meal at family celebrations. For weddings, it is unthinkable, as Iranians like to invite dozens or even hundreds of guests.

"It no longer features anywhere outside private feasts, nearly always organised by foreigners," he told AFP.

Ikra sevruga is the least expensive well-known brand at 3.4 million rials (430 dollars) per kilo. As for top of the range Beluga, that can be as much as 1,300 dollars.

"Our clients are also some of the very few luxury restaurants," said Salimi.

His shop, like only seven others offering caviar in Tehran despite its large population of more than 10 million people, only deals with the Shilat fisheries company, which has a monopoly on fishing, marketing, organisation of trade from the Caspian , the breeding of sturgeons and export.

Production has dropped sharply, going from 300 tonnes in 1990 to around 100 tonnes today, 80 percent of which is headed for export, mainly to Germany, France, Britain and Japan.

Furthermore, a "parallel market" competes with the official market.

Plans to privatise Iran 's caviar industry, which was a state monopoly even in the days of the Shah, were announced Thursday by Khodakaram Jalali, the director-general of Shilat.

It aims to "encourage private sector activity in this area, and will supply sturgeons to interested companies," Jalali said.

There had been a "major increase in the price of caviar," rising in just one year from 390 to 680 dollars for an average kilo, he said.

"Those private companies that are interested will be able to produce and export caviar. Those in the public sector will be able to get bank help when they present their projects," Jalali added without providing further details.

As well as pollution caused by the increasing drilling for oil in the Caspian , the drop in caviar production is due to illegal fishing by the nations which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This year, Iran has released 25 million young sturgeon into this inland sea and continues to ban fishing with fine mesh nets to protect the youngest specimens.

Iran is the only country to rear in this manner, which is a condition for the survival of caviar.


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