American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage (Part 4)

20 Nov 2020

American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage

Part 4: Iran Archaeology is Awaiting a Sanctions Breakthrough

By Kyle Olson

November 20, 2020

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

Cooperation in the field of archaeology between Iranian and foreign researchers has a long history. In my academic research, I am currently combing the archives associated with all the major American archaeological expeditions to Iran, beginning in 1930 and continuing until 1978, focusing on the activities of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Oriental Institute, the Field Museum, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, among others. This record shows intensive contacts between heritage professionals of both nations over a sustained interval in contexts such as field research, museum exhibits, student exchanges, and UNESCO initiatives. As positive as these relations may have been for those who participated in them, heritage collaborations were marked by the same steep power imbalances that characterized the overall midcentury relationship between the United States and Iran. 

In the early days of international collaboration in archaeology, Iranian researchers often participated only as trainees. Iranian leadership in archaeological projects was largely on Iranian projects, in which few foreigners participated. In recent years, this has changed. Since around 2000, all foreign archaeological projects in Iran have been joint endeavors; under current regulations, all cooperative research must be staffed by workers and researchers that are at least at numerical parity. The past two decades have seen major restoration projects at the citadel of Bam (an Italian collaboration), surveys and excavations in the Tehran Plain (British) and in the Mamasani district of Fars Province (Australian, British, and American), continued work at Persepolis and Pasargadae (multi-national, but especially French, German, and Australian), as well as excavations at Konar Sandal (American), and at numerous sites in northeastern Iran (German and Chinese), to name just a few examples. Indeed, one of my sources commented that the period from 2003 to 2016 was a high point for foreign archaeology in Iran.

Since 2017, conditions for foreign involvement in archaeological research in Iran have been less than favorable. However, the work continues. To get a sense of the effect of American policy in shaping archaeological fieldwork in Iran, and specifically joint international collaborative projects, I consulted colleagues and experts from a range of professional and national backgrounds. Given the sensitivity of the topic, all interviews were conducted on background. Most of my sources had worked in Iran as recently as 2018, but several had not been able to travel to Iran since 2014, or even as long ago as 2011. The consensus among these individuals is that conditions have worsened considerably in recent years, taking a particularly bad turn with the Trump administration’s executive orders known as the “Travel Ban,” maximum pressure, and the reimposition of broad-spectrum sanctions in 2018 following the US exit from the JCPOA.


During the early years of the Rouhani administration, before and immediately after the JCPOA rapprochement, conditions for archaeological research were seen to be improving. Nevertheless, all of my sources recognized that even in the best of times, the internal political situation in Iran complicates the regular functioning of archaeological research. I heard again and again that while procedures and protocols sometimes move along in a smooth and timely fashion, as often as not, there can be long delays in receiving permits and visas with little warning or explanation. While a considerable contingent of Iranian heritage professionals actively seeks to promote international collaborations, the shifting winds of both global and Iranian domestic politics can have drastic effects on the possibilities for cooperative research. These conditions are understood to make the conduct of archaeology in Iran a highly risky endeavor for foreign missions.

For example, one researcher I spoke with worked in Iran as recently as January 2020. After a lengthy wait, their visas and permits finally came through in late autumn 2019. Due to the rising tensions and skirmishes in the Persian Gulf, the leader of this team felt obliged to devise an escape plan and carry extra cash, charting routes to the nearest international airport, or failing that, the nearest land border through which they could escape in the event of the outbreak of conflict. The assassination of Qassem Soleimani on the 3rd of January 2020, while they were actively excavating, ultimately did not force the research team to flee, but it did show just how necessary such contingency plans had become.

My sources told me that every year it is a struggle to know exactly when one will be able to go to the field, which makes it difficult to plan work and coordinate the participation of specialists. All of the experts I spoke with expressed concern about health, safety, and professional prospects. The consensus seems to be that junior scholars in the West ought not to try to work in Iran until they have a stable position from which they can ride out the ups and downs of intermittent and unstable conditions of access to the field. Several sources related to me that every time they leave Iran after a fieldwork season, they worry that it might be for the last time.


Geopolitically speaking, experts agree that archaeology and heritage constitute one of the last remaining channels of good relations between Iran and the West. This has naturally made the field a political football, with foreign specialists in Iranian heritage caught in the crossfire. American archaeologists of Iran have been the most affected. European researchers have had an easier time, but invitations and the processing and issuance of visas are frequently held up by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as retribution for unrelated international disputes. Moreover, Iran’s detainment of dual nationals on charges of espionage in recent years, including in some extreme cases lengthy prison sentences and the threat of the death penalty for field researchers, has caused considerable concern on the part of researchers who hold two passports, especially if their documents are American and/or Iranian.

More directly, American sanctions make funding archaeological research particularly difficult. Archaeology is an expensive and logistically complex endeavor everywhere in the world. Research teams typically involve anywhere from three to twenty scholars and students, and a pricey suite of digital recording instruments, including total stations, GPS devices, photography equipment, laser scanners, geophysical instruments, drones, which naturally arouse suspicion due to their perceived potential for dual use—in addition to the usual trowels, picks, shovels, dustpans, brushes, buckets, and wheelbarrows.

The particular complication in the case of foreign missions in Iran is that it is not possible to conduct bank transfers between international and Iranian banks and international credit cards cannot be used. Therefore, foreign researchers are obliged to carry cash —in some cases amounts approaching EUR 50,000—and exchange it for rials in order to conduct their business. This—in addition to general complications with bank-transfers due to secondary sanctions—is a logistical nightmare for the researchers on the ground, but also a significant concern for funding agencies and university finance departments.

American sanctions extend beyond purely financial matters as well, particularly with respect to the prohibition on the exchange of services. Several experts specifically highlighted issues with the export of scientific samples for analyses that cannot be performed in Iran. After negotiating the already challenging internal bureaucratic regulations governing the shipment of scientific samples within Iran, it is then extraordinarily difficult to transport them safely or predictably to Europe or North America. This can mean, in some cases, years-long delays, which cause particular problems for foreign researchers insofar as their employment or professional advancement may depend on the results of such analyses, not to mention the frustrations of Iranian specialists eager to participate in the international scientific community. American sanctions also prevent the use of basic and routinely-used software packages such as ArcGIS Online, which researchers may be obliged to run through university contracts with the provider of the software, ESRI. This service cannot be accessed in Iran, meaning that a crucial tool in archaeological research is unavailable for both foreign and Iranian researchers.

As it turns out, many of these complications are not due to the actual OFAC regulations themselves, which, strictly speaking, do authorize the use of software, the exchange of services, and even some limited transactions as part of routine academic research. But university lawyers are extraordinarily skittish about permitting and funding fieldwork in Iran, afraid of being sued by the US Treasury. In some cases, these concerns can be allayed through obtaining a specific license to authorize a circumscribed program of research. Due to the complicated, lengthy, and expensive process involved in obtaining such a license, however, in practice this means that it is almost impossible for American citizens to be involved in Iranian projects. This appears to be particularly true of the past five years, when licensing has been much more restricted, and the Trump administration has moved to take power out of the hands of the OFAC bureaucracy.

OFAC licensing was one of the major sticking points in the Persepolis Tablet Archive Return project, mentioned in the previous article. I learned that the process of obtaining the license took almost a year and required extensive documentation of every object being transferred and the particulars of the itinerary of the participants in Tehran. OI representatives felt the need to go so far as to print out English-language exhibit labels in Chicago, rather than run the risk of violating sanctions protocols by printing them in Tehran. Such are the absurdities of the situation. Moreover, the Oriental Institute was advised not to do a press junket in the US, to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the work from powerful Iran-hawks in the federal government that might complicate future OFAC licensing.

Simultaneously, the American policy of maximum pressure is squeezing the Iranian economy as a whole. In practical terms, for Iranian archaeologists, this means that access to equipment and the international scientific community is made all the more difficult. Necessary electronics are far more expensive in Iran, visas and funding for participation in international conferences are difficult to obtain, many artifact conservation supplies are scarce and exorbitantly priced, and certain kinds of routine analysis cannot be performed in Iran. Additionally, as discussed previously, due to the funding structure of the MCHT, there is plenty of money for the conservation of monuments and the promotion of tourism, but very little funding for primary archaeological research. Most of the scientific excavation that occurs is salvage or rescue work, which must occur on an accelerated timeline in order to recover archaeological remains in advance of construction and infrastructure projects. Given these conditions, one of the only avenues to obtain funding for academic archaeological field research is to join with a foreign collaborator who might be able to bring with them funding from abroad.


Despite all of these difficulties, the expert consensus is that there is huge potential for international scientific collaboration between Iranian and foreign researchers. Those that I spoke to were unanimous in their recognition of the high degree of professionalism among archaeological researchers in Iran, and the quality of their fieldwork. Foreign archaeologists see their Iranian colleagues as partners on an equal footing scientifically, and indeed, many Iranian archaeologists in leadership positions within MCHT, the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research, and in academic departments, have PhDs from the very same universities in France, Germany, the UK, the US, and Canada. Iranian archaeologists are perceived as particularly open to innovation, especially in the use of advanced technologies in archaeological fieldwork, and in archaeometric and laboratory analyses such as geophysics, petrography, metallography, paleoecology, photogrammetry, and radiography, among others. The general view is that the level of scientific work in Iranian archaeology is quite high by global standards, and all that I spoke to felt compelled to relate to me their great sense of privilege when given the opportunity to work in Iran.

The present political situation has forced many foreign archaeologists of Iran to continue their research and publishing collaborations remotely. For some, particularly American and British researchers, this was already the reality for some time. With all of the difficulties in obtaining visas and securing funding to continue cooperative fieldwork in Iran, many of my colleagues have had to come up with creative solutions to keep their work going. In some cases, this takes the form of an active social media presence and online exchanges. In others, it involves remote mentorship of students by virtual means, training them in research methods and guiding their work in data collection and analysis, ideally leading to joint publications and thereby visibility in the international scientific community for those who otherwise would not have access to it.


The question of access is central. To the extent that certain foreign nationals have difficulty accessing the field in Iran, so too do Iranian researchers have difficulty accessing collections of Iranian antiquities stored in Western museums. Several researchers I spoke to expressed strongly that—given the volume of materials stored in institutions such as the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Oriental Institute, the Louvre, and others—Western researchers have a duty to work with these materials and to make them more accessible. Other ideas that were floated include joint projects conducted remotely, in which projects are designed and published collaboratively, with the fieldwork carried out by Iranians on the ground, and the data and analysis shared over the internet. This of course is not an unproblematic proposal, as global power imbalances would still be at play, and there is a legitimate question as to the extent to which this constitutes a sanctionable exchange of services. My reading of the terms of The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control General License G suggests that such work is authorized, but circumspection is strongly advised.


Regardless of all the difficulties, my sources pointed to several bright spots. To pick just one, the Persepolis Fortification Tablet Archive Return is seen as a model endeavor, and a prime example of how to both keep open and reinforce channels of communication between specialists and stakeholders, both Iranian and foreign. As one of my sources noted, the legal case that opened the door to the 2019 return—Rubin v. Islamic Republic—represents an odd confluence of forces, in which the United States government, the Islamic Republic, and an American institution were all on the same side. How often has this been the case in the general course of the relationship between our two countries over the past four decades? As I have documented in my historical research, despite the poor condition of our bilateral relations today, archaeology and cultural heritage were once seen by US State Department officials as among the best channels for establishing positive ties between the United States in Iran. My hope is that they may someday be so again.