(Persia Digest) - Kim Hjelmgaard writes in USA TODAY that last year, nearly $100 million worth of Persian carpets were exported to the U.S. after the lifting of international sanctions tied to the nuclear accord negotiated under the Obama administration.
Now that President Donald Trump has chosen to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and reimpose sanctions, one industry in Iran is preparing for the worst: the ancient and acclaimed carpet business.
The year before the nuclear agreement was signed, Iran exported none of its traditional hand-woven carpets to the United States, according to Iran’s National Carpet Center, a state-affiliated organization. That is because the United States imposed a ban on rug imports from Iran in 2010 as part of Washington’s efforts to pressure the nation over its nuclear weapons program.
Last year, nearly $100 million worth of Persian carpets were exported to the USA after the lifting of international sanctions tied to the nuclear accord negotiated under President Barack Obama's administration.
Millions of Iranian carpet makers and merchants are distraught over an industry that dates to the founding of the Persian Empire more than 2,500 years ago, in which master weavers (mostly men) have passed down their skills for generations.
"It’s the livelihood of hardworking Iranian villagers who make our rugs who will suffer the most under new sanctions," said Fereshteh Dastpak, the head of Iran’s National Carpet Center. The group promotes trade, works to preserve Iran’s carpet heritage and lobbies for the rights of the 1.5 million people who earn their living in Iran’s rug industry.
"I hope Trump realizes the carpet under his feet when he met with (North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in a Singapore hotel) and signed a peace protocol was from Iranian Azerbaijan (a region in northwest Iran bordering Iraq). Trump is hurting the Iranian people by targeting our carpets," she said in Tehran this summer. "He is also oppressing his own people by denying them access to something they love: our carpets."
That love is undeniable. The iconic Persian rug has infatuated Westerners for decades.
It has been celebrated in popular culture by a vast number of luminaries from the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, to rock stars such as Tom Petty, who once brought one on stage while he performed. In "One Thousand and One Nights," a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, a Persian rug is given magical properties that enable it to fly.
The Persian rug is big business inside Iran.
More than 32 million square feet of Iranian carpets are woven annually, and rugs are one of Iran’s top exports alongside oil, natural gas, fruits and a variety of plastics and raw materials.
Last year, there was almost $1 billion worth of carpets made and sold in Iran.
In a reflection of how serious Persian rugs are taken in Iran, two dozen universities teach carpet design. Some of the more intricate rugs featuring birds, flowers, leaves, palmettes and rosettes can take years to make and require millions of hand-tied knots.
In Iran, Persian rugs are viewed not just as family heirlooms or a way to make your home more comfortable and beautiful. They are also seen as lifelong investments.
The more you walk on a carpet in Iran – the more worn it becomes as its exposed knots reveal the intricacy of the design – the more it increases in value.
In 2013, an antique Persian rug sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City for nearly $36 million. It was the highest price for a rug and a reflection of the Persian rug’s enduring appeal as an artform, according to Jason Nazmiyal, a prominent Iranian-born, New York-based carpet dealer. Nazmiyal has a collection of 4,000 antique and vintage carpets.
He left Iran for the USA in 1978, a year before the Islamic revolution swept the country.
"The art of the Persian rug should have nothing to do with political embargoes," he said. "Sanctions hurt ordinary Iranians who work every day, 10 hours a day – the weavers, the dyers, those simply trying to sustain their families and make a living."
Since the nuclear accord, Iran has exported approximately $428 million worth of carpets, according to Dastpak of the state-affiliated National Carpet Center.
About 30 percent went to buyers in the USA and 12 percent to Germany. The remainder were split among buyers in more than 80 countries.
Dastpak said neither the National Carpet Center nor any Iranian government industry groups have produced specific forecasts for how the sanctions might affect Iran’s carpet industry, but the prevailing assumption is that they will be a major setback for an industry that was starting to find its feet.
Washington insists the sanctions are targeted at Iran’s regime, not ordinary Iranians.
Changing tastes among Iranians
Beyond the foreign market, Iran’s carpet industry struggles with sales at home amid changing tastes and social mores among younger generations.
"Young, wealthy Iranians will happily pay $1,500 for the latest Apple iPhone, but they certainly wouldn’t pay that amount for a carpet," said a carpet seller at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, where there are about 2,000 carpet merchants plying their trade in the 6 miles of lanes and warrens of people and goods at the historical marketplace.
The carpet seller did not want his name published in a U.S. media outlet because the bazaar, long a center of conservatism in Iranian politics, has recently been the site of anti-government protests over Iran’s increasingly troubled economy.
Iran is plagued by high unemployment and inflation that has led to a currency crisis.
"It used to be that Iranian fathers and grandfathers knew about carpets and they would pick and choose what they wanted with exceptional expertise and care, but for young people, carpets are not so important any longer," the carpet seller said. "They would rather spend their money on an expensive pair of sneakers."
Still, Parisa Beyzaei, the director of Iran’s National Carpet Museum, an institution that is home to thousands of Persian rugs that date from the 16th century to the present day, said carpets remain one of the most popular and respected art forms in Iran.
They showcase "all our emotions, feelings, rituals, beliefs, faiths and traditions. It’s all reflected in the carpets, whether you are from a city or a rural area, from a rich house or a poor house," Beyzaei said. "Iran is not a very green country because of the heat and dry climate, so we use rugs to bring the idea of gardens into our homes. Maybe we can say they are the second flag of Iran."
Beyzaei acknowledged that Iranians are less tempted by Persian rugs than they used to be and that the industry will need to navigate the latest challenge of sanctions.
"People want to be more trendy and chic and buy data-x-items that reflect this aspiration," she said. "They think carpets are too traditional. They also can’t afford to buy handmade rugs. I am in touch with many of our exporters, and they tell me the market is not as good as it once was."
Nazmiyal, the rug dealer, said the sanctions are ineffective.
"It has not stopped smugglers bringing Persian rugs into the U.S. They get them in through Canada, or they pretend they are rugs from India or Pakistan. I promise you, smugglers have made more money bringing Persian rugs to this country than Iran’s government ever has," he said.
"And it’s not just the Trump people who don’t seem to understand this," he said. "(Presidents Bill) Clinton, (George W.) Bush and Obama, they didn’t get it either. The sanctions have been on and off for decades. It’s the little guy that always loses out."
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