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How the rug got pulled out from under Iran's traditional carpet weavers

Iranian carpet shop owner Ali Faez works at his shop at the traditional bazaar of the city of Kashan, about 152 miles (245 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran.
Iranian carpet shop owner Ali Faez works at his shop at the traditional bazaar of the city of Kashan, about 152 miles (245 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. Copyright Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Doloresz Katanich with AP
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The export of traditional Persian rugs from Iran, a market which once exceeded $2 billion, has plummeted to less than $50 million in the last year.

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The historic Kashan bazaar in central Iran once sat on a major caravan route, its silk carpets known the world over. But for the weavers trying to sell their rugs under its ancient arches, their world has unravelled since the collapse of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers and wider tensions with the West.

Rug exports, which exceeded $2 billion (€1.86 billion) two decades ago, have plummeted to less than $50 million (€46.5 million) in the last year that ended in March, according to government customs figures. 

With fewer tourists coming and increasing difficulties in making international transactions, the centuries old market for Persian rugs made in Iran has collapsed leaving some   weavers working for as little as $4 a day.

"Americans were some of our best customers," said Ali Faez, the owner of one carpet shop at the bazaar. "Rugs are a luxury product and they were eager to buy it and they used to make very good purchases. Unfortunately, this has been cut — and the connection between the two countries for visitors to come and go has gone away."

Cultural heritage facing sanctions

Kashan's rug-weaving industry has been designated by UNESCO on a list of the world's “intangible cultural heritage.” Many of the weavers are women, with the skills needed for the Farsi weaving style passed down through generation to generation, using materials like vine leaves and the skins of pomegranate fruit and walnuts to make the dyes for their threads. A single rug can take many months to make.

A worker carries carpets at the traditional bazaar of the city of Kashan, about 152 miles (245 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A worker carries carpets at the traditional bazaar of the city of Kashan, about 152 miles (245 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, April 30, 2024.Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

For decades, Western tourists and others would pass through Iran, picking up rugs as gifts to take back home. However, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the US increased sanctions on Iran's theocratic government over the American Embassy siege and Tehran's links to militant attacks and other issues.

But in 2000, the outgoing administration of former President Bill Clinton lifted a ban on the import of Iranian caviar, rugs and pistachios.

By 2010, with concerns rising over Iran's nuclear program, the US again banned Iranian-made Persian rugs. But in 2015, Iran struck a nuclear deal with world powers which greatly reduced and drastically lowered the purity of Tehran's stockpile of enriched uranium. The rug trade was allowed once again.

Three years later, in 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal. Since then, Iran began enriching uranium at near-weapons-grade levels and has been blamed for a series of attacks at sea and on land, including an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack targeting Israel last month.

An Iranian woman weaves a carpet at a workshop in the city of Kashan, about 152 miles (245 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
An Iranian woman weaves a carpet at a workshop in the city of Kashan, about 152 miles (245 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, April 30, 2024.Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

For the carpet weavers, that's meant their wares were once again banned under US law.

“It started when Trump signed that paper," Faez told The Associated Press, referring to the renewed sanctions. "He ruined everything.”

Abdullah Bahrami, the head of a national syndicate for handwoven rug producers, also blamed the collapse of the industry on the Trump sanctions. Prior to this, he put the value of exports to the US as high as $80 million a year (€74.3 million).

"The whole world used to know Iran by its rugs," Bahrami told the state-run IRNA news agency in March.

'No credit cards, please'

Making things worse is what carpet sellers see as a fall in tourists to Kashan as well. 

High-value American and European tourism in Iran has largely stopped, the daily Shargh newspaper warned last year. 

But even those tourists that do show up face the challenge of Iran's financial system, where no major international credit cards are accepted for purchases.

Iranian carpet designer Javad Amorzesh, one of just a few of Kashan's old-school artists, works at his workshop at the traditional bazaar of the city of Kashan, Iran.
Iranian carpet designer Javad Amorzesh, one of just a few of Kashan's old-school artists, works at his workshop at the traditional bazaar of the city of Kashan, Iran.Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

"I had a Chinese customer the other week. He was struggling to somehow make the payment because he loved the rug and didn’t want to let go of it," Faez said. "We have to pay a lot of commission to those who can transfer money and have bank accounts abroad. Sometimes they cancel their orders because they don’t have enough cash with them."

The collapse of the rial currency has also left many Iranians unable to purchase the handwoven rugs. Wages in the industry are low, leading to a growing number of Afghan migrants working in workshops around Kashan as well.

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Designer Javad Amorzesh, one of just a few of Kashan's old-school artists, said his orders have fallen from 10 a year to just two. He has let go of staff and now works alone in a cramped space.

"Inflation rose every hour. People were hit repeatedly by inflation," he said. "I used to have four to five assistants in a big workshop.”

Offering a bitter laugh alone in his workshop, he added, "We’ve been left isolated."

Video editor • Mert Can Yilmaz

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