A highly original documentary project reveals how a couple of Beverly Hills billionaires “are willing to risk war in Iran and the Middle East — all in order to boost and protect their lucrative pistachio business.”
By Max Blumenthal
Three years ago, journalist Yasha Levine and filmmaker Rowan Wernham first arrived at the vast pistachio plantation of Stewart and Lynda Resnick in California’s parched Central Valley. There, they saw firsthand how a billionaire power couple had successfully manipulated the state’s political system to privatize its water supply for their own financial benefit.
Today, the Wonderful Company farm owned by the Resnicks soaks up more water than the entire city of Los Angeles. Their business was based on “a heist of epic proportions,” according to Levine, that “will put family farms out of business, and push life in the biggest river estuary on the west coast of America towards mass extinction.”
The story eventually took Levine and Wernham far beyond the parched Central Valley, and into the heart of America’s Israel lobby. It turned out that the Resnicks had been pumping their money into some of the most militantly pro-Israel think tanks in Washington, including the American Jewish Committee and the Washington Institute on Near East Policy (WINEP). Both of these outfits have lobbied heavily for sanctions on Iran and against the Iran nuclear deal. One WINEP executive, Pat Clawson, has even called on the US to stage a false flag attack that could trigger a war with Iran.
Levine and Wernham recognized that the Resnicks’ support for the Israel lobby was all about protecting their monopoly from a nation traditionally recognized as the producer of the world’s best pistachios. The billionaire nut barons were not only threatening the environment and livelihoods of their local competitors, they were bankrolling forces determined to take America to war against a rising Middle Eastern power. This is why the title of Levine and Wernham’s work in progress, “Pistachio Wars,” is so apt.
In an interview with the Grayzone, the filmmakers detailed the dangerous nexus between the Resnicks’ pistachio profits and the escalating economic attack on Iran. Their insights showcase the originality and political daring that make “Pistachio Wars” so relevant.
At the moment, Levine and Wernham are raising funds to bring “Pistachio Wars” to completion. You can follow this link to see a trailer and support their groundbreaking project. Our interview is below:
MB: How did the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Carter administration after the 1979 revolution affect America’s domestic pistachio market in general, and the Resnicks in particular?
YL & RW: Without out a doubt, President Carter’s embargo on Iran was what gave birth to America’s pistachio business. Historically, pistachios imported from Iran had dominated global markets, including in the US. When America was suddenly cut off from Iran’s pistachio supply after Carter’s economic blockade in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, it left a giant hole in the market and created the need for an alternative source of pistachios. At the time, pistachio farming happened on a small scale in the United States — the bulk of it in California’s Central Valley. Sensing a perfect business opportunity, farmers in California stepped in to fill the void. At that time, Stewart Resnick had just gotten into agriculture. He was a shrewd businessman and he seized the moment.
From then on, America’s pistachio industry grew at crazy pace, with domestic output more than doubling every 5 years. In 2008, forty years after the embargo, America finally surpassed Iran as the world’s dominant producer of pistachios. And the bulk of America’s pistachio trade is controlled by one firm: the Wonderful Company, owned by Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick.
Through clever and aggressive marketing, the Resnicks have singlehandedly driven a global pistachio boom, creating a demand for pistachios where it had not existed before.
MB: Stewart and Lynda Resnick have taken an extremely active role in supporting the Israel lobby both in the US. What organizations are they backing and to what-extent is their support related to protecting their share of the pistachio market against Iranian exports? Or could it be that this power couple is just ideologically committed to the idea of Israel, as many other American Jews are?
YL & RW: Stewart and Lynda Resnick are donors and supporters of of some of the most powerful and influential neoconservative organizations in America, including the AIPAC spinoff WINEP (Washington Institute for Near East Policy) where they have been on and off the board for over a decade. WINEP has been extremely hawkish on Iran. One of its executives has openly called on Israel to provoke a war with Iran in order to pull in the United States.
Stewart Resnick, along with Sheldon Adelson, has also long been a board member and backer of American Friends of IDC, a not-for-profit foundation that serves as the fundraising arm of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a think tank with close links to the Israeli intelligence and military establishment, and which has long advocated an aggressive approach to Iran. And through their family foundation, the Resnicks have also funneled money to the American Jewish Committee, which one of the most active lobbyists pushing for a sweeping Iran sanctions bill that was eventually signed into law by Obama in 2010.
Whether or not they fund these groups solely for business purposes or because of their personal commitment to supporting Israel — well, that’s a hard thing to untangle. They are politically active and are major political donors. They donate widely across the political spectrum, but ostensibly, they are liberals. They said glowing things about Obama’s 2008 victory, they hosted a party for Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, Arianna Huffington is a close friend of theirs, and they have Stephen Colbert in tow as a brand spokesperson. They rarely speak to their views around issues of real consequence, whether it’s about Israel, Iran, or even California and American politics.
Our sense is that for the these two issues are intertwined — there’s a synergy there. And the two positions are mutually supportive. Backing the aggressive, neoconservative Israel lobby by default helps their bottom line. We would add – and this is just our own reading of the situation here – that in the unlikely event that they would be forced to choose between supporting Israel and protecting their business interests, the latter would prevail. For the Resnicks, business comes first.
MB: Has anyone from Resnicks’ Wonderful Company operation openly stated their intention to sabotage Iran’s pistachio exports through sanctions?
YL & RW: Iran has had America’s market closed to it pretty much since 1979. But more than half of their pistachios are exported internationally and are thus directly in competition with Iran’s exports.
So battling and taking over Iran international marketshare — whether in Europe, China, South Korea Russia, India or Israel — has been a prime objective of the Resnicks and the greater pistachio lobby. This is done with sanctions, but it is also done with free trade agreements — lobbying countries through American government trade reps to raise tariffs on Iranian pistachios, while lowering tariffs on American pistachios to zero.
They will use every tool they have to restrict and suffocate Iran’s pistachio industry. The Wonderful Company is very media and PR savvy so its executives and spokespeople don’t go out calling for war on Iran. But they are honest about Iran being their prime competitor and target. As one of their executives — in a very understated manner — told the press told the press not so long ago: “We don’t mind stealing share from the Iranians.”
Another thing that’s interesting is that if you go into the Central Valley and talk to pistachio farmers, everyone is very much aware of and concerned with Iran. We were interviewing farmers out in the field right after President Barack Obama pushed through the Iran nuclear deal that would lift some sanctions from the country, and the farmers were livid with Obama. They were not happy with the potential market consequences of that deal. “Obama really screwed the pooch,” one farmer told us.
We were able to get a camera person into the American Pistachio growers convention in Palm Springs where they dedicated an entire session to the importance of retaining the embargo. These events are very bland, but they recounted the history of Iranian sanctions relative to the industry, including moments that were jubilant for the American public — like the release of the hostages after the embassy crisis, or things that were very bad for Iran — like America’s support for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, with glib pronunciations about how the price of pistachios went up or down.
For the lawyers and lobbyists presenting all this, there was a sense that they were pitching the farmers as to why they should continue to allocate around half a million dollars a year to their firm to work on the issue. These things have their own sick kind of momentum.
MB: Ironically, Israel has been a leading importer of Iranian pistachios, which are considered the best in the world. They do so through third parties like Turkey with whom they enjoy semi-normalized relations. Does this threaten the Resnicks and has the US done anything about it?
YL & RW: Yeah, about a decade ago there was a scandal in Israel when it turned out that the country was turning a blind eye on the importation of Iranian pistachios through Turkey, which were rebranded as “Turkish pistachios.” Turns out that if given the choice, Israelis would rather eat Iranian pistachios rather than American ones, which they consider to be of inferior taste.
The US ambassador to Israel at the time wrote an angry letter to Israel’s Finance Minister accusing him of willfully turning a blind eye to this practice and of violating Israeli laws. The media in Israel went wild with accusations that anyone who bought Iranian pistachios was directly financing terrorists and helping Iran build a nuclear bomb that would be used to wipe Israel off the map.
Israel consumes more pistachios per-capita than any other country in the world. It’s a tiny country, but it’s market is valued at just over $30 million dollars — which about 10% of the entire pistachio market in China, the world’s biggest importer of pistachio in the world with a population of 1.4 billion. It’s not peanuts, so of course the Resnicks have a stake in making sure that the market is dominated by American pistachios. Since it’s already illegal to import Iranian pistachios in Israel, the American pistachio lobby has been putting pressure on Israel to enact trade policies that would make the stealth importation of pistachio from Iran even harder: things like increasing tariffs on pistachios imported from Turkey, while dropping tariffs on American pistachios to zero. And that what the situation is today: American pistachios come in duty free while everyone else pays a steep tax.
MB: To what extent has the rise of domestic pistachio production, and particularly the growth of the Resnicks’ Wonderful Company impacted a water-deprived state like California? Would importing pistachios from a place like Iran or another pistachio-producing region take some of the pressure off of California’s water supply? And short of any market-based solution, what remedies can be applied to restore control over water to the public?
YL & RW: The two are directly connected. What makes pistachios different from other crops grown in California is that they grow on trees and cannot be fallowed in a dry year. With crops like cotton or alfalfa or lettuce or strawberries, farmers can simply not plant in a drought year when there is not enough water. But with pistachio trees it’s different. If you don’t water them, the trees die — which destroys years of investment that it took to bring them to maturity. There can be no water cutoff for pistachio orchards — they require a constant, year-round supply of water. But California has seasonal rainfall and periods drought. So in order to maintain their constant supply of water, California farmers — led by the Resnicks — have been draining aquifers and rivers at an alarming rate and are currently pushing through a devastating plan to siphon off of two largest rivers in California — all in order to feed the pistachio boom.
Allowing Iranian imports would not make American pistachio farmers very happy, but it would not solve California’s water crisis either. The problem now is that through clever and aggressive marketing, the Resnicks have driven a global demand for pistachios on a scale that had never existed before. And today global demand outstrips supply — which is why pistachios are such a lucrative crop to plant and why so many farmers are converting their fields to pistachio orchards. So in the extremely unlikely event that America was suddenly flooded with Iranian pistachios, the Resnicks would adapt by simply shifting their supply to global markets — all while continuing to extract California’s over-tapped water supply. Their business might suffer, but it would probably not be catastrophic.
California’s water shortages cannot be solved through market mechanisms. A solution would require democratic control of water supplies. There needs to be a democratic political framework for determining how to use the state’s precious, over-tapped water supplies in a way that is maximally beneficial to the public and to the environment — to the future of the state. Water today is distributed purely based on raw economic power: it goes to the most powerful, most cutthroat business interests.
And that’s where we are today: not only are American pistachio farmers destroying California, but they are willing to risk war in Iran and the Middle East — all in order to boost and protect their lucrative pistachio business.
There is a bigger issue here that goes beyond pistachios and water in California. The fact is that we in America cannot fix our belligerent and destructive foreign policy without first reigning in the economic interests that drive it and benefit from it. In that sense, the pistachio business is no different than oil companies or weapons makers — it’s just that it is not so well know.