US Sanctions on Iran Exempt Popcorn

Humanitarian aid is part of the reason US exports to Iran rise as sanctions stiffen. Aid includes Coca-Cola, Kraft cheese – and popcorn.

Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu ,

A man sells popcorn by the beach in Benghazi
A man sells popcorn by the beach in Benghazi

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that tough American sanctions have not prevented U.S. shipments to Iran from rising 25 percent since the beginning of this year, with most of the increase ascribed to wheat and other grains. Almost overlooked in the increased exports is humanitarian aid that includes popcorn.

The New York-based financial site Minyanville asked, "And why would Ahmadinejad & Co. turn to the Great Satan for provisions?” and then answered, quoting an American wheat trader who told Reuters back in March: "If they need something really quick and reliable, the US is there to do it." 

"You can only get so many cargoes out of Brazil or Germany quickly," the trader explained. "Russia obviously still has some logistical issues and if they want more, and they want it in April or May at the latest, they're going to have to come to the US."

However, the complicated sanctions have created a web of confusion in which popcorn is included in humanitarian aid. Exporters of more basic foods are allowed to ship but often cannot get paid because of restrictions on bank transfers.

Medicines, agricultural commodities and foods are exempt from sanctions, but Thomas Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, was quoted by Minyanville's Justin Rohrlich as having said, “We issue licenses for sales of food and medicine to Iran, but it is not legal for them to pay for it."

Most names of companies allowed to export to Iran are not published, but Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola confirmed to the Wall Street Journal last August that they ship to the Islamic Republic.

What is defined as humanitarian aid?

Apparently, cigarettes.  Rohrlich wrote that Phillip Morris received a license to sell cigarettes to Iranians, and Kraft Foods was given permission to export, among other items, cheese, cake mix and mayonnaise.

Last, if not least, Iranians can munch on Jolly Time popcorn, thanks to permission to the American Pop Corn company to export the snack as a humanitarian food exception.

Rohrlich added that the company’s food products export manager Henry Lapidos told the Times, "I don't see us supporting the ayatollahs. I don't think the Revolutionary Guard -- that soldiers would take microwaveable popcorn in their backpacks when they go to war.

"Popcorn has fibers, which are helpful to the digestive system. So it could be considered humanitarian, though it's pushing the envelope."

Iranians wanting to stay fit with extra health goodies can do so with NatureFit weight-loss supplements, but Muscle Gauge Nutrition was fined for trying to ship protein powder to Iran.

Minyanville noted the confusion does not stop there.

The export of diapers is prohibited, but wood pulp used to make the padding in them is allowed.