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Iran's ice cream challenge to America

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 6:45 PM

BAGHDAD - In the heart of Baghdad's Green Zone, just yards from the mighty fortress of the biggest U.S. embassy in the world, a small but symbolic challenge to America's rapidly waning influence in Iraq is taking shape in the form of an Iranian ice cream parlor.

Ice Pack, an aggressive new franchise that proclaims its intent to challenge U.S. fast-food hegemony worldwide, will open its Green Zone branch in January, said Ali Hazem Haideri, the shop's Iraqi manager. The building is under construction, but when complete it will offer customers a choice of 34 ice cream flavors, along with a front-row view of the comings and goings of the heavily armored convoys that whisk U.S. officials through the blast walls protecting the embassy nearby.

Next door is the fast-fading Freedom Restaurant, named in honor of the U.S. invasion and aimed at U.S. soldiers and contractors. These days, American customers are rare, and the restaurant mostly caters to Iraqi government workers who come to eat chicken and kebab on plastic tablecloths under flickering neon lights.

It's a vivid reminder of the shifting balance of power here as the U.S. military winds down its presence and prepares to go home. Even the celebrated Green Zone, once an outpost of Americana in a chaotic Iraq, is no longer a U.S. zone of influence. The United States handed over control to Iraqi security forces last June, along with responsibility for issuing the coveted badges that allow access to the walled enclave, relinquishing the ability to control who may come and go.

In the long-deadlocked process of government formation, it was Iran, not America, that brokered the deal that enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep his job, by exerting pressure on anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to accept Maliki for a second term, leaving both men beholden to their powerful neighbor.

Simply by being next door, Iran wields leverage in Iraq that the United States cannot hope to enjoy. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians visit Iraq's holy Shiite shrines every year, Iranian goods flow freely across the border and Iraqi politicians are acutely aware that they will have to continue dealing with Iran, with which Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s, long after U.S. troops have gone home.

A foothold in Iraq

Meanwhile, as Ice Pack expands across Iraq, there are no plans to open Baghdad branches of McDonald's, Starbucks, Burger King or any of the other U.S. brand names that are entrenched in most other countries in the region.

Haideri, 22, and his business associate, Hadi Laith, 23, who owns the Ice Pack franchise for Iraq, said they would have preferred an American partner.

"We wanted to open a McDonald's here, but we were afraid someone would blow it up," Haideri said over large paper cups filled with chocolate ice cream, fruit and whipped cream, Ice Pack's specialty, at the chain's first Baghdad outlet in the busy Karradah neighborhood.

"A lot of Iraqis want to try new products, and McDonald's is really enthusiastic to come here because they know if they come they will make a fortune. But Iraqis are too scared."

"Iran is easy," added Laith, who bought the Ice Pack franchise in 2008 for $800,000 after negotiating for several weeks with McDonald's representatives in Jordan. "Transportation is easy. Customs are easy. McDonald's had very exacting demands, and they wanted $4 million."

In some ways, Ice Pack's push into the Green Zone is more of a snub than a challenge. Iranian-made ice cream is a lesser threat to U.S. officials than the Iranian-made rockets, fired by Iranian-trained and funded militias, that periodically crash into the embassy and its environs.

Haideri says he did not deliberately site the outlet near the embassy, and indeed seems somewhat anxious about the store's proximity to rockets aimed at Americans. He is hoping to attract Iraqi families living in the Zone, and does not expect U.S. diplomats to visit.

"I think they have strict rules and they are not allowed to leave their embassy," he said. "If they come, they will be welcome."

Yet there's something brazen about the Green Zone location of a franchise whose Web site declares that its goal is "to exalt the name of Iran and reinforce Iranian identity."

Citing McDonald's, Starbucks and Burger King as its competitors and inspiration, Ice Pack's Web site adds, in English: "Considering the fact that countries such as the United States have been able to impose their exports to other countries by chain and brand systems but Iran has not ever used this method, happily Ice Pack has been able to include Iran in competition with the world's chain brands."

The company boasts outlets as far afield as Malaysia, Kuwait, Turkey and Venezuela, as well as across Iran. A sign hung at the Green Zone site states that this will be Ice Pack's 210th branch. It will also be the third in Baghdad, and others are planned in the southern cities of Najaf and Basra.

Always 'meddling'

Whether Ice Pack can succeed in Iraq in its mission to advance Iranian interests is in question, however. Though Iran's influence soared after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iran's support for the Shiite militias responsible for much of the violence a few years back, along with its often overt interference in Iraqi politics, has fueled animosity among many ordinary Iraqis.

Cheap Iranian products from cars to chickens have flooded the Iraqi market, damaging the local economy and further deepening millennia-old rivalries between Arab Iraqis and Persian Iranians.

"Iran's influence is self-limiting," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "The Iranians will always be meddling, but the Iraqis don't trust Iran and they don't like Iran."

Haideri says he plays down the brand's Iranian origins for fear of deterring customers. "Iran's popularity has gone down," he said.

On the streets around Ice Pack's first Baghdad branch, people said they neither knew nor cared that the store was Iranian. "There are people who prefer Iran, and people who prefer America," said Haider Saleh Mohammed, 23, with a shrug, who sells sports accessories nearby. "I don't like either of them."

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