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Iran's denunciation of British Museum in Cyrus Cylinder disagreement could make loan renegotiations impossible

Loan of relic caught up in international political tensions

The British Museum (BM) has expressed surprise at a senior Iranian politician’s decision to cut off relations with the museum over the delay in the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Tehran’s National Museum. The dispute has also exposed divisions in the Iranian position, as Azadeh Ardakani, the new museum director in Tehran, indicated that she is still hopeful the loan can go ahead in July.

The BM decided to postpone the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder, following the recent discovery of two fragments of cuneiform tablets with part of the text, dating to 539BC. Tehran’s National Museum has long wanted to borrow the Cylinder for short-term display and is said to have spent $200,000 on upgrading security, apparently at the BM’s request.

On 6 February Hamid Baghaei, an Iranian vice-president and head of the Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organisation, announced that Tehran had “cut off all its relations and cooperation with the British Museum”. He also called on Unesco and other international museums to take similar action.

The announcement by Baghaei was a shock as just four days earlier the BM trustees had held an extraordinary meeting to approve the loan for July. Baghaei’s office was informed later that day. There have been only two other emergency meetings in the past seven years, both about planning applications for the new building extension.

In an apparent volte-face, on 8 February Ardakani, who has recently taken over as museum director from Muhammad Riza Mehrandish, sent an email to the BM, saying that cooperation would continue and hopefully the loan could proceed. Relations between Tehran and the West are particularly strained over international fears that Iran is developing a nuclear capability, and due to Iranian assertions that Western powers are tacitly encouraging opposition protests in the country.

After Iran’s breaking of relations, any loan would require new approval from the trustees. BM sources suggest that even a retraction of Baghaei’s statement and resumption of relations would make it difficult to agree to lend such an iconic antiquity, particularly after the loan seemed to have become entangled in political issues. The museum would need guarantees from the highest levels in the Iranian government that the Cyrus Cylinder would be promptly returned after the agreed four-month loan period.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Cyrus Cylinder: British Museum counters Iranian retaliation'