More than 50 artworks from the Louvre museum in Paris arrived at the National Museum of Iran on March 5 in the first major show by a Western museum in Iran's history.
The 40-day show reflects France's determination to use cultural diplomacy as it seeks to rebuild ties with Iran that have been strained recently by a dispute over Iran's ballistic-missile development.
"In the tumultuous ocean of international relations, cultural diplomacy is a flare that we should maintain together," said French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian, who was visiting Tehran on March 5 to open the exhibit and hold talks on missiles and other geopolitical matters.
The doors were unsealed for journalists at the National Museum in central Tehran, which is currently celebrating its 80th anniversary, a day ahead of the public opening.
Among the items shipped over by cargo plane were a 2,400-year-old Egyptian sphinx, a bust of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and drawings by Rembrandt and Delacroix.
The show marks the culmination of two years of work since a cultural-exchange agreement was signed during a visit by President Hassan Rohani to Paris in January 2016.
"Relations between France and Iran are old and profound because France was a pioneer of archaeological exploration here," Jean-Luc Martinez, president of the Louvre, told AFP.
"This completely unprecedented exhibition...allows us to make the link between this glorious moment and relations that date back to the 19th century."
France has deep cultural ties with prerevolutionary Iran, and the National Museum itself was built by a Frenchman, Andre Godard, in 1938.
While Britain explored for oil and battled with Russia for political influence in 19th-century Persia, France focused its efforts on archaeological affairs.
"France had priority on cultural questions in the late 19th century and was the only one doing digs in Iran," said Julien Cuny, one of the Louvre's curators for the Tehran show, and an expert on Iran.
The show opens just as France and Iran find themselves in a tense diplomatic moment.
Iran's hard-line press accused Le Drian of insulting the Iranian people with his criticisms of Tehran's ballistic-missile program, labeling him a "lackey" of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has vowed to stop Iran's missile development.
The art exhibit offered Le Drian a chance to focus on reengagement with Iran.
"Whatever disagreements we may have with Iran, we want to keep and develop a cultural relationship with Iranian society," a French diplomat told Reuters.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters