One of the hottest shops in Tehran these days sits on a treelined street in the fashionable district of Elahieh. Its name is too risque, by local standards, to be displayed on the storefront. Instead, gilt letters spell it out on a dusky rose wall inside: Victoria's Secret. Iranian women flock here to rapturously fawn over delicate silk negligees, lace underwear and other fripperies that are available nowhere else in the Islamic Republic. While the franchise is fake, the goods are authentic. So the shop offers Iranian women a twofold illicitness: sexy lingerie that flagrantly violates Islamic notions of modesty, plus a MADE IN THE U.S.A. label. "What kind of underwear this is I don't know," says a bemused waiter at the coffee shop next door, as he watches young women stream past.
Victoria's Secret Tehran is just the raciest manifestation of the growing popularity of American products in Iran. While elsewhere in the Middle East consumers are boycotting American goods to protest U.S. foreign policy, Iranians can't get enough of them. Coca-Cola's exports to Iran have increased nearly threefold this year. Toy stores are struggling to keep up with the growing demand for Barbie dolls.
Not even President George W. Bush's branding of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" has cooled Iranians' ardor for U.S. products. Restive young people, tired of the constrained social life prescribed in Iran, associate brand-name icons of American culture with the freedoms they're denied. "The labels remind them of the lifestyle they crave and see on MTV," says Mina Bahrami, a mother of two teenagers. Iranians embrace products of the "Great Satan" as one small way to register their discontent with the religious conservatives who control their country. "Why do I only drink Coke?" asks Goudarz Amini, 13. "Because if it's not from here, it represents something better."
Elsewhere in the region, the Arab boycott of U.S. goods--a protest against Washington's support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians--has gathered enough momentum so that sales at fast-food chains like McDonald's and KFC have fallen precipitously. But Iranians, who are Persians, not Arabs, are less emotionally connected to the plight of the Arab Palestinians. As hostility toward the U.S. grows throughout the Arab world, the majority of Iranians remain remarkably pro-American. According to a recent poll, 65% feel Iran should re-establish ties with the U.S.
Hard-liners complain that Iranians are sullying themselves with U.S. soft drinks and "American sandwiches," as a conservative paper disdainfully referred to hamburgers. In a quest to provide a homegrown alternative to Barbie, the government launched Dara and Sara dolls, clothed modestly in traditional garb. The dolls proved so unpopular that toy stores in Tehran don't bother to carry them anymore, though the pink boxes of authentic Barbies still fly off the shelves.