American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage (Part 3)

12 Nov 2020

American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage (Part 3)

Museum Diplomacy Falters in the Face of Iran Sanctions

By Kyle G. Olson

November 12, 2020

This article is the third in a five-part series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In 1926, Alexander Upham Pope, an art historian, collector, and dealer who specialized in Iranian art, was contracted by the Iranian government to design the Persian Pavilion at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a replica of the magnificent Safavid-era mosque Masjid-e Shah from Naqsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan, which sat in what is now the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park and the Sports Complex in South Philadelphia. The interest generated by Persian Pavilion and the precious objects displayed within it led to the convening of the First International Congress for Persian Art and Archaeology. The success of this congress in turn paved the way for an exhibition of Iranian art and antiquities sponsored by the British Royal Academy of Art, held at Burlington House in London several years later.

The Pavilion and subsequent congress captured the imaginations of two brothers-in-law, scions of established Philadelphia families: Fiske Kimball and Horace Howard Furness Jayne, the directors of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, respectively. Together, they sponsored Pope to travel to Iran to participate in the negotiation of a new Antiquities Law in Iran that would allow American archaeologists to conduct surveys and excavations in Iran for the first time. Pope had his own agenda, however, and his feuds with the era’s leading scholar of ancient Iran—Ernst E. Herzfeld—complicated proceedings. So Kimball and Jayne dispatched the explorer, diplomat, and amateur archaeologist Frederick R. Wulsin to Tehran to take Pope’s place. Within six months, an agreement had been reached, and the Law for the Protection of National Vestiges was ratified by the Iranian Parliament in November of 1930.

Wulsin, hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio and educated at Harvard, was one of the heirs of the Baldwin Piano Company fortune, which supported his early travels in China, Mongolia, Tibet, Vietnam, and Laos. In his capacity as the representative of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Wulsin was the first American citizen to apply for a permit to conduct archaeological excavations in Iran, digging for two months with his wife Susanne (née Emery) at the site of Tureng Tepe (Hill of the Pheasants) near the modern city of Gorgan. It was through research on the artifacts and documents that resulted from this excavation that I first became involved in the archaeology of Iran, making him a figure of special significance for me.

This background is important because it demonstrates the meaningful role museums have historically played in the mediation of the relationship between the United States and Iran. These private institutions were among the primary American actors on the Iranian political scene and a key contributor to goodwill between the two countries during the interwar period. As I write in a forthcoming piece, museums and their representatives were in fact seen at the time by State Department officials as the United States’ best chance at improving relations with Iran at the time. Iran’s heritage has long been an important channel of cultural exchange with other countries, and despite current American policy, this has not changed today.


Recent museum exchanges between Iran and the West, both high and low-profile, have shown the continuing importance of Iran’s heritage in its foreign affairs. These include the international tour of the Cyrus Cylinder (2013), the Louvre exhibition “The Rose Empire: Masterpieces of 19th-Century Persian Art” (2018), the Persepolis Fortification Tablet Archive Return (2019), and the planned show “Epic Iran” at the Victoria & Albert Museum (due to open in February 2021). In each case, sponsors and participants in these initiatives have had to navigate a tangle of sanctions and restrictive financial regulations, which are at least to a degree predictable. They have also had to weather less foreseeable storms, such as political fallout from skirmishes in the Persian Gulf and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

In 2013, the Iran Heritage Foundation, working together with the British Museum and the Smithsonian institution, undertook an American tour of one of the most famous artifacts of ancient Iran: the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder is a 2600-year-old cuneiform document, written in the Babylonian variant of the Akkadian script in 539 BCE, which was excavated at the site of ancient Babylon in 1879 by the Assyrian-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam. The object has been in the possession of the British Museum since 1880.

Following Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s formulation, the Cyrus Cylinder is often referred to as the “first declaration of human rights,” a precursor to the modern Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since 1971, a replica has been displayed at the UN headquarters in New York as a symbol of human liberty. This is in no small part because the text of the Cylinder is understood to have encouraged “freedom of worship” within the Persian Empire and allowed the return of peoples, such as the Israelites, deported from their homelands by the Assyrians. It has thus been taken up and promoted as a symbol of “multi-culturalism, tolerance, diversity, and human rights.”

The IHF exhibition, which traveled to five cities—Washington DC, Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—was marketed to American audiences on the basis that Cyrus’ principles of tolerance influenced the American founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, who owned not one but two copies of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. The reception of the tour at the time is instructive. On the one hand, politicians speaking out of both sides of their mouths hailed the artifact and its message as a way to counter the media narrative of Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions. On the other, commentators such as noted religious scholar Karen Armstrong highlighted the power that cultural diplomacy can have where political diplomacy has failed.

This has continued to be the case, though current American policy has made such efforts at cultural diplomacy more difficult. For example, following a French-Iranian cultural exchange agreement signed in 2016, and after two years of painstaking preparations, the 2018 Louvre exhibitions, “The Louvre in Tehran” and “The Rose Empire: Masterpieces of 19th-Century Persian Art,” faced major financial and logistical challenges due to American policy. As reported in The Art Newspaper, would-be exhibition sponsors were concerned about falling afoul of primary and secondary sanctions penalties. Ultimately, both shows went on as scheduled, but because of restrictions on cargo flights between Paris and Tehran, the number of items in the Tehran show had to be considerably reduced. Despite tensions in other domains, the exhibitions were seen, at least by the French foreign ministry, as symbols of a shared ambition to promote positive relations and bring Iran back into the fold of international affairs.

In contrast, the planned exhibition “Epic Iran,” scheduled to open in February 2021 at the V&A in London, hangs in the balance. Even prior to COVID-19, the planners of this exhibition commented publicly on the difficulties they faced due to the exit of the United States from the JCPOA, intensified sanctions, and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. V&A Director Tristram Hunt believes that the geopolitical situation makes the show all the more significant. Under present conditions, however, there are legitimate concerns that Iran will choose not to lend approximately 40-50 promised objects, potentially compromising forthcoming sponsorship. Nevertheless, despite difficult conditions and difficulties in securing loans, Hunt maintains that, at a time of escalating tensions, the exhibition serves a vital and important purpose in educating British audiences about the art and culture of “one of the world’s greatest historic civilizations.”

The current policy environment and geopolitical standoff between the United States and Iran has also impacted the return of long-term loans of Iranian antiquities stored in the United States, most notably the Persepolis Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This collection of 30,000 Achaemenid administrative documents was exported to the United States on loan for conservation and decipherment following its excavation in the mid-1930s by representatives of the Oriental Institute. In keeping with the original agreement that the tablets would eventually be returned, three batches of objects had previously been sent to Tehran, first in 1948 and 1950, and then again in 2004.

The remaining tablets housed in Chicago could only be returned recently. The delay in the continuation of the return of the tablets in the 2000s was in no small part due to a decade-long lawsuit that attempted to wrest control over the objects away from the Oriental Institute, which eventually rose all the way to the Supreme Court. Victims of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in 1997, carried out by Hamas, but blamed on Iran, were awarded $71.5 million dollars in restitution by an earlier lower-court ruling in 2006, which Iran refused to pay. The victims sought indemnification via repossession of this collection of artifacts in lieu of the awarded settlement, presumably to sell on the art market. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against this petition (Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran), opening the door to the return of the artifacts to Iran.

The reimposition of sanctions under the Trump administration in 2017-18 further complicated the return process, however. The shipment of the tablets and their hand-delivery by personnel from the Oriental Institute had to be thoroughly vetted by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is a difficult and lengthy process even in the best of times. Despite the expensive legal battles and complicated licensing required to undertake the return, the first batch of tablets in this round were returned in October 2019, to be followed by additional shipments when conditions allow. There is great hope on both sides that despite the difficulties, the broadening of contacts that this project represents could mark a renewed era of scientific collaboration between American and Iranian scholars in the heritage sector.


American foreign policy has complicated the ability of museums—whether University research museums, like the Oriental Institute and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, or major art museums such as the V&A and the Louvre—to conduct the exchanges of objects and personnel required put on exhibitions related to Iranian cultural heritage. Nevertheless, museum professionals in North America, Europe, and Iran recognize the importance of these events for educating the public and for establishing ties between nations. There is much more to be said about the conduct of Western museums in amassing their collections of Iranian antiquities, but that is the subject of a different essay. In the meantime, another domain where American policy has stymied efforts to engage in heritage diplomacy and intercultural dialogues is in international cooperative archaeological field research, which we will consider next week.