American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage (Part 1)

29 Oct 2020

American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage

Part 1: American Policy Casts a Shadow Over Persepolis

By Kyle Olson

October 29, 2020

This article is the first in a five-part series.

Five years ago, I traveled to Iran to attend a conference in Tehran, The International Congress of Young Archaeologists (ICYA). It was my second time participating in this biannual event, which was and is the most important conference for students and early career researchers specializing in Iranian archaeology. On my first trip in 2013, I was one of only three Americans who made the journey; on the second, there were more than twenty. The difference was largely due to the atmosphere of openness in the immediate post-Nuclear Deal era. I, like many of my colleagues, was guardedly optimistic about the opportunity and the possibilities that this conference and the sideline meetings surrounding it represented. In a meeting with the then director of archaeological research at the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, the message conveyed to those of us assembled was one of welcome and excitement. It seemed at the time that American archaeology in Iran, a field that had lain mostly dormant for four decades, was perhaps being reborn.

These two trips were marked by a pair of major diplomatic events. The first was the famous phone call between Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama after the UN General Assembly in September 2013, which occurred, auspiciously, the same day that I received my visa invitation to attend the ICYA for the first time. The second trip coincided with “Adoption Day,” October 18, 2015, when the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, a.k.a. the “Nuclear Deal”) became binding, transforming the deal from an agreement on paper to a policy reality. With a sense of occasion, I rushed out to the nearest kiosk and purchased a copy of every paper they had for sale. Headlines that day announced, among other things, the first foreign capital investment permit issued after the JCPOA, for a German-Iranian joint venture in a chalk mine in Fars province. While Adoption Day was not celebrated in the streets the way the signing of the deal in July had been, that day in October was seen, at least by reformist-leaning newspaper editors, as the beginning of the end of sanctions.

For me personally, that day in October 2015 appeared to be the beginning of a career as an archaeologist working in Iran. I had just returned from a short excursion with a potential collaborator after the conference. The trip went well, resulting in an invitation for me to participate in his project, so long as I was able to pay my own way over the years that it would take to conduct my dissertation research and write it up. In the end, of course, this did not come to pass. I returned to the US and set to work designing a research proposal and preparing grant applications. The annual application deadline for the main funding source for archaeological field research in my discipline is the first of November. In 2016, a week after applications were due, Donald Trump was elected president. Among his first policies after inauguration was Executive Order 13769, officially titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” but popularly known as the “Muslim Ban.”

I have not been back to Iran since. I knew that specializing in Iranian archaeology was a risky career move, even at the best of times, but I had expected the majority of difficulties to come on the Iranian side, in the form of red tape around visa applications and permissions to access sites and collections. In the end, it turned out to be American policy that upended my carefully laid plans. Ultimately, Trump’s Iran policy forced me to completely reshape the trajectory of my academic research. While I continued to work on Iranian archaeology, I had to use different materials and methods, focusing instead on museum collections and satellite imagery to collect the data I had intended to pursue in the field. But more than this, the experience imparted to me a deep awareness of the impact of geopolitics on the field of archaeology. More broadly, these events have given me insight into the human toll of American policy toward Iran. This article, with the four that will follow, represent a moment of pause and reflection on the past five years, an attempt to make sense of the challenges and opportunities that the field of archaeology in Iran faces as a result of American foreign policy.


American sanctions and the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign have not only failed to achieve their stated objectives to choke off revenues to the so-called regime, but have also caused considerable collateral damage in Iran’s economy. While American policy-makers rail against Iran’s “malign activities” and regional footprint, Iranian officials have entrenched themselves in a defensive posture, promoting a “resistance” economy to overcome the imposed restrictions on the country’s participation in the global market. Ordinary Iranians are caught in the crossfire of this geopolitical stand-off. They face difficulties ranging from disruptions in accessing medicine and humanitarian aid to natural disaster relief. Partisans and detractors alike agree that American sanctions are strangling the Iranian economy and threatening the livelihoods of millions of civilians.

One area of Iran’s economy and society which has been little discussed in conversations on the impact of maximum pressure sanctions is the cultural heritage sector. Cultural heritage is significant for any country’s national identity, and this is nowhere more true than in Iran, which has 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a robust set of heritage institutions, and a public deeply invested in its history. The importance of Iran’s national patrimony is clearly reflected in Donald Trump’s January 2020 threat to strike 52 Iranian heritage sites if Iran were to target American troops, citizens, or assets in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. The specific number of targets is no accident—it was the number of Americans held in the embassy seizure of 1979—nor is the threat to strike Iranian heritage sites in particular a coincidence. Iran’s cultural heritage is viewed as among the nation’s greatest contributions to world civilization and its most effective ambassador in a time of international isolation.

Beyond matters of cultural identity and geopolitics, however, cultural heritage has become more important than ever in Iran over the past five years. This is in no small part due to the close relationship between Iranian cultural heritage management and the tourism industry. Tourism and heritage are linked explicitly in the public relations messaging of the newly formed Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism (MCHT). MCHT Minister Ali Asghar Mounesan recently stated that “tourism is the most important channel for the transmission of Iranian culture to the world.” Iran’s heritage is seen by policymakers not only as an important part of Iran’s foreign relations, but also as an indispensable resource for an industry viewed as a potential growth engine in an economy hamstrung by sanctions. Under the current regime of sanctions, the promotion of tourism—both domestic and foreign—has come to be seen as a key component of the Iranian resistance economy. This in turn calls for an analysis of the sector’s condition and current prospects under American sanctions and maximum pressure.


The articles in this series will therefore investigate the impact of American policy on cultural heritage management in Iran, in particular as it relates to the three domains of tourism, heritage diplomacy, and international scientific cooperation. Generally, American sanctions and maximum pressure have created extreme challenges for those working in these areas at every level, from government ministers and policymakers to museum directors, from archaeology professors to tour guides and hospitality workers.

Several trends have arisen in response to these policies. In the case of heritage and tourism, the industry was growing rapidly in Iran prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, most of this growth was from domestic tourists and religious pilgrims from neighboring countries. After the signing of the JCPOA, policymakers in MCHT had hoped to attract more European and Chinese tourists, who are perceived as bigger spenders than domestic and regional tourists. Between 2015 and 2017, there did seem to be growing numbers of these tourists, but they dwindled after the US backed out of the Nuclear Deal, and appear to have bottomed out after the reimposition of broad-spectrum sanctions in 2018.

With regard to intergovernmental and interinstitutional heritage diplomacy, Iran’s cultural heritage has historically played an important role in its foreign relations. From the Persepolis Celebration of 1971, to the Cyrus Cylinder’s tour of American and Iranian museums in 2013 (the cylinder is held by the British Museum), and more recent joint exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert and the Louvre, Iran’s heritage has been used to position the country as an important member of the world community. American policy toward Iran has created an extraordinarily unstable environment for such exchanges, complicating the delivery of objects and the travel of personnel. In a time when American policy seeks to isolate Iran on the global stage, heritage professionals and diplomats are at great pains to highlight Iran’s contributions to world history and to educate their audiences and stakeholders about Iran’s civilizational legacy. The current sanctions regime means that exchanges of objects are not only expensive and logistically complex, but also vulnerable to interruption due to rising tensions and fears about the potential for armed conflict. Nevertheless, despite many challenges and difficulties, heritage diplomacy is seen as a potential avenue for rapprochement and the improvement of ties. Such exhibitions have managed to continue for now, but at great expense and risk. It appears unlikely that an event such as the Cyrus Cylinder’s tour of the US will be possible in the near future, despite the fact that such exchanges are exactly what is needed in these times.

There is another form of heritage diplomacy made complex by American policy: international cooperative research in the field of archaeology. While foreign scientists face a range of difficulties in conducting joint expeditions with their Iranian counterparts due to American policy, these pale in comparison to the obstacles faced by Iranian scholars. In addition to pressuring the Iranian economy in general, sanctions, travel bans, and related policies are squeezing the lifeblood out of this profession. My sources—both Iranian and foreign—tell me that while there is money available for investment in tourism infrastructure and heritage restoration, there is very little funding for basic archaeological research beyond rescue and salvage operations to recover materials that would otherwise be destroyed by development activities. Consequently, Iranian archaeologists have little choice other than to seek out international collaborators to gain access to the funding needed to conduct question-driven field research and perform laboratory analyses. Under present conditions, however, it is extraordinarily difficult to engage in the joint labor of performing the field research necessary to produce archaeological knowledge. This has serious downstream consequences. Without the work of archaeologists and related specialists—including conservators, curators, and other museum professionals—neither tourism initiatives nor high-level diplomatic exchanges would be possible.

Despite the present nadir in US-Iranian relations, there are signs of hope. There is great will among the invested stakeholders, professionals, and researchers to continue to cooperate across borders regardless of American policy. How are they faring and what are their prospects? Could Iran’s past be the key to its future? Heritage workers will be the first to tell you that international engagement with Iran’s heritage has previously been an important vector for establishing and improving ties, even under difficult circumstances. By maintaining relations in the face of maximum pressure, heritage professionals are doing what they can to keep open one of the last remaining channels of communication between Iranian civil society and the global community. Hopefully, these connections will survive current conditions and Iran’s cultural heritage could yet again be a well-traveled bridge between nations.

Click here to read Part 2 of this five-part series.