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Eternal Sunset for Persian Carpet

Two carpet weavers open their hand-woven carpet at the grand bazaar in Kashan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Two carpet weavers open their hand-woven carpet at the grand bazaar in Kashan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Legendary Persian hand-woven carpets are on the verge of disappearing from the world market after years of decline, according to Tehran's economic sources.

The unique and internationally renowned Persian carpets that in 1994 generated over two billion dollars, sold only $69 million in 2019, bringing in a mere two million dollars in the second quarter of 2020.

In other words, if current trends continues, the total export of Iranian hand-woven carpets, which once fascinated buyers on the world market, will not exceed about $25 million this year.

Considering that the average export of Iranian rugs between 2000 to 2010 was about $450 million per year, its decline to a few million dollars in 2019 reflects the "disastrous" condition of the Iranian economy that calls for a thorough contemplation.

Undoubtedly, the escalation of sanctions or the coronavirus pandemic has been instrumental in creating such a dramatic setback. But focusing solely on these two factors and disregarding the dilemma's roots amounts to denying the reality.

This symbolic Iranian commodity's debilitated position in the world markets results from severe Islamic republic foreign trade weaknesses. Sadly, Tehran does not recognize the requirements of international trade and loses its winning cards, one after another, to the detriment of Iranian national interests and welfare.

The value of Iranian carpets and the products’ roles throughout history goes far beyond the realm of economics and takes on "non-commodity" dimensions. The oldest carpet found in the world, called "Pazyryk," is kept in the Hermitage Museum in Russia. It is about 2,500 years old, and many researchers believe that the Achaemenid Persians had woven it.

There is also a lot of evidence of handmade carpets' prominent role in Iranians' life and culture in the Parthian and Sassanid periods. This visual art reached a peak in the Safavid time, and it continued to flourish in the late Qajar and Pahlavi eras. In a nutshell, Iranians have lived for centuries with handmade carpets' subtlety and delicate patterns, and non-Iranians have also considered Persian rugs as pieces of art tied to the Iranian identity.

A crucial economic atmosphere has been formed around this potent symbol of Persian culture. In Iran's economy, especially its rural economy, carpets have been one of the country's most crucial employment opportunities for a long time, providing a livelihood for millions of families. It is a high value-added commodity with production that does not require large investments, meaning the products can create employment and export capacity.

Iranian men sit in their Persian carpet shop in Tehran's old bazaar 12 February 2000. Iran is one of the world's biggest exporters of carpets. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ
Iranian men sit in their Persian carpet shop in Tehran's old bazaar 12 February 2000. Iran is one of the world's biggest exporters of carpets. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ

Even today, Iran estimates the number of carpet weavers at one million, a number that rises to two million when the other contributors to the industry are considered, from the initial production stages to sales (raw material supply units, dyers, designers and artists, sellers, exporters, etc.)

A country like Iran, which has achieved such universal fame for its handmade carpets through centuries, should look after it as the jewel in its crown. It should establish and maintain scientific and academic fields and research centers for promoting the carpet industry, and assign export and marketing experts to travel to four corners of the world to present this magnificent piece of art.

While the identity and genuineness of Iranian carpets must be preserved, the designs and colors must evolve at the same time to adapt to the expectations and tastes of consumers across the globe.

Sadly, the value of Iranian hand-woven carpets was not appreciated in the Islamic Republic, and its presence in world markets fell below one hundred million dollars a year.

China, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Nepal took Iran's place in the global carpet market. Due to its political isolation and inability to join the

World Trade Organization, Iran has failed to defend the copyright for Iranian carpets' unique designs and styles within the framework of laws related to protecting industrial property rights. Rival countries, especially China, a master of industrial property fraud, looted Iranian designs and styles and sometimes even deceptively offered its carpets as Iranian products to world markets.

Several products have been associated with specific lands and peoples' names throughout human civilization and have been known to have a higher quality. Persian literature has highly praised Chinese porcelain bowls, Roman brocades, Indian steel, and Aleppo glass. Swiss knives are still popular today, as are French Bordeaux wine and Scotch whisky.

With its strong industry and agriculture, a country like France maintains the reputation of several of its traditional products as irreplaceable treasures. It supports them, creates job opportunities, and makes money by exporting them.

Why is Iran so quickly wasting its hand-woven carpet industry, which has been established through centuries of excruciating suffering? Iran could have become a great industrial country and keep its 2,500-year-old hand-woven carpet industry flourishing as a symbol of ancient creativity.

Through a combination of tradition and modernity, Iran can simultaneously protect its cultural identity and preserve the people's living standards whose survival depends on the carpet industry.

Alas, Iran not only failed to become an industrial country, it even lost its capacities in the two traditional fields of oil and carpets. Future historians will write that in 2019 and 2020, Iran's carpet exports fell below one hundred million dollars a year, and Iran's oil exports fell in the range of 200 to 300 thousand barrels per day.

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    Fereydoun Khavand

    Fereydoun Khavand is a French-Iranian economist living in Paris. He has been teaching at various French universities and is a regular contributor to Radio Farda as an economic analyst.