Persian rugs may appear to be innocuous cultural artefacts – prized in apartments from Doha to Paris as signifiers of wealth and taste. They are also a foundation stone of Iran's economy, employing an estimated 2 million of the country's 77 million citizens – an essential sector for a country where unofficial unemployment statistics stand at 23 per cent, and may be far higher. Rug exports represent Iran's most important non-oil and gas commodity so if Washington wants to hurt Tehran, then pulling the rug out from under them is a good place to start.
According to the Islamic Republic's official statistics, Persian rug exports were up in 2011, nearing €370m. Ask anyone selling rugs in Iran, though, and their informal findings tend to tell a very different story. “Before I’d sell a minimum of one rug per week,” reports Ali Faraji, 27, whose family owns a shop in Tehran’s vast rug bazaar. “Now I’m lucky if I sell one in a month.”
The challenges facing the Iranian rug industry are complex, although a major obstacle is a US embargo implemented in October 2010, completely banning the importation of rugs from Iran. The last embargo was lifted by the Clinton administration in 2000, making Barack Obama’s decision a natural move for a US government increasingly committed to damaging the Iranian economy.
Iranians in the business are hardly satisfied by Obama’s claims that measures are intended to hurt the Iranian regime and not its citizens. Exporter Mohammad Mehdizadeh from the city of Kerman explains, “These sanctions will only affect people in the trade, what connection does the rug business have with politics?”
Despite the embargo, rugs from Iran still make it to American destinations. According to Mohammad-Reza Abed, the general manager of Iranian Handmade Carpets Shareholder Company, “certain strategies have been taken into consideration for reducing the effect of this sanction one of which is the export of handmade carpets to the United States through some countries near America, including Canada and Mexico. This is a strategy that was implemented during the previous sanctions, as well.”
Although Iran still weaves more handmade rugs than any other country, booming centres in China, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have all taken large shares of the global trade, producing cheaper rugs that often respond better to the tastes of the western market.
According to Saeed Qhodoomi, director of the Carpet Export Union of Qom, the Iranian holy city, which produces what are considered by many the finest carpets in the world. “Half of the rugs that we produce respond to market demands and half come directly from the designers’ inspiration.” Facing so many fundamental challenges, it’s easy to see why efforts are underway to revamp the industry and save it from what many see as inevitable decline.
Taking a tour of the production line, from the dye factories to the workhouses where the rugs are woven, and what becomes quickly evident is a self-conscious effort to mechanise and modernise as many aspects of the rug production as possible; as though creating inventory more quickly and efficiently was the answer to the industry’s larger issues.
New chemical dying techniques make colours that were non-existent a few years ago universally available. Computer programmes make intricate design work, once a process that took months, a task accomplished now in a matter of days. The only aspect that remains as it has been for centuries is the weaving, a skill learnt by many Iranian women simply by watching their mothers. A top weaver earns the equivalent of €5 a day depending on how many millimetres she is able to finish. Some rugs may take up to two years of daily work to complete and will fetch tens of thousands of euros – for the seller.
With the rewards little and the costs high – many weavers struggle with arthritis, diminished eyesight from hours spent focusing their vision on small details and respiratory problems from breathing in the miniscule fibres – there is little surprise that the number of weavers is declining rapidly. The industry is clearly in danger.
“I warned people about China 40 years ago,” says Hossein Soleimani, an octogenarian rug shop owner in Tehran’s sprawling bazaar. Showing Monocle a photocopy of an article he penned in 1971, portending the death of the rug industry in Iran, he bemoans that no one has listened to his warnings.
Persian rugs may be synonymous with opulence and elegance, but for an increasingly conflicted industry under considerable economic and political pressures from global forces, the future looks threadbare.
Before the 2010 embargo, the US was the top buyer of Persian rugs since the 1970s, purchasing €31m worth in 2009. According to official Iranian government statistics, the top five customers are now, in order of size: the UAE, Germany, Italy, Japan and Lebanon. There has also been a sharp increase in sales to Malaysia, South Africa and Russia. The most important future market is China, where imports of handmade Persian rugs are up 12-fold in 2011. Overall Iran exports 5 million sq m of handmade rugs annually to over 100 countries.
There are a range of embargos and sanctions in place against Iran by western nations.
Pistachios: This ban went into effect in 2010 along with rugs, much to the delight of California pistachio growers.
Caviar: Iran is the world’s top producer of caviar, exporting 300 metric tonnes per year.
Banking: Iran is virtually disconnected from the global banking system. International ATM cards don’t work, so bring cash if you want to buy that rug.