The Persian Rug Trade Is Back in Business; until Obama Signed an Executive Order Lifting Sanctions on Iran, All Persian Rugs Had Been Banned from Entering the U.S

By Goodman, Leah McGrath | Newsweek, March 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Persian Rug Trade Is Back in Business; until Obama Signed an Executive Order Lifting Sanctions on Iran, All Persian Rugs Had Been Banned from Entering the U.S


Goodman, Leah McGrath, Newsweek


Byline: Leah McGrath Goodman

Sanctions on Iran were all about oil, right? Yes, but a little-known fact is that the international sanctions imposed over the past decade to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions had a devastating effect on its second largest export: the iconic Persian rug.

Iran is one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, and the Persian carpet tells much of that story, tracing back at least as far as the Bronze Age. It has been infused with magical properties in tales such as One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, celebrated by everyone from Edith Wharton to Sigmund Freud, and has survived centuries of holy wars, colonialism and revolutions.

But until January, when President Barack Obama signed an executive order lifting sanctions, all Persian rugs--whether antique or brand-new--were banned from entering the U.S., regardless of how long they had been outside Iran. For instance, a Persian rug sold in London that had not been in Iran for more than a century still could not be shipped to the United States. Purveyors of Persian rugs in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere were forced to navigate convoluted rules imposed by the U.S. government that would shift every several years or so, depending on the political vicissitudes of the day.

"It's been a lot of political nonsense over these beautiful rugs that were woven hundreds of years ago," says Jahangir Nazmiyal, an Iranian who goes by his Americanized name Jason and owns the Nazmiyal Collection in New York, one of the biggest buyers and sellers of antique Persian rugs in the United States.

Western elites' love affair with fine carpets spans centuries. "The Persian rug was long seen as a way for middle-class families to signal their upper mobility, going back to the late Victorian and Edwardian periods," says Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who specializes in the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. He says much of it stemmed from colonial-era excursions to the East, from which "the colonels would bring back these remarkable goods," including Persian carpets.

"This moment that we're in is potentially a big turning point," Cole says. "The prospect for improved relations economically, politically and culturally between Iran and the West is entirely plausible. But I don't think there's going to be an easy thaw."

The U.S. first imposed sanctions on Iran after the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis and embassy seizure in Tehran and, later, over concerns about Iran's sponsorship of terrorism. Most recently, sanctions were escalated in 2010 (after being loosened in 2000) to dissuade Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction or developing a nuclear weapon, which Iran has denied attempting.

Nazmiyal has more than 3,000 rugs in his New York gallery worth anywhere from a few thousand dollars to millions apiece. Many were brought over before the Islamic Revolution, and he built up the collection during periods when sanctions were intermittently eased, continuing to sell to clients in the United States. Nazmiyal's gallery manager is Omri Schwartz, 39, a native-born Israeli. Given the tensions between Iran and Israel, Schwartz says, he and Nazmiyal are aware they make a curious duo. "But for us, it's about the rugs," he says. "We differentiate between the people, the art and the country's policies," Schwartz says. "We never feel animosity toward the individual."

For generations, Persian rugs have been woven the same way on room-sized looms. The master weaver of the Persian rug is almost always a man, but the making of the rugs is a family business and has been for what is known of its 2,500-year history. "When a grandmother is doing it, she will teach the mother and they also will teach the children," Nazmiyal says. "A master weaver is someone who invents new designs, new techniques, new ways of putting colors together, and he will weave only 15 to 20 rugs in a lifetime. …

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