TEHRAN -- Iran's traditional carpet industry is desperate to regain its vigor.
Economic sanctions placed on Iran due to the country's nuclear program were repealed in January. With the sanctions tying up Iranian money traveling through or parked at oversees banks, it was difficult for the country to export rugs. But now businesses hope to expand overseas sales -- and sell more carpets to foreign tourists to the country.
Rug stores can be found here in bazaars or along shopping boulevards. The floor coverings are often displayed vertically, like posters, and customers can look through designs as if turning pages in a book.
Prices vary depending on quality and size but typically run into the thousands of dollars. Such an expenditure requires serious consideration. Iranians, considered by many as enthusiastic negotiators, ask numerous questions to sales staff and enjoy haggling over price.
Rasul Hashemi, 50, a rug-store owner, said his business struggled to export carpets while the sanction were in place. "But sales will get better soon," he said.
Moein Nazari, a sales person at another rug outlet, said the number of foreign tourists in the city, as well as at the shop, is increasing. "We dealt with Swedish and Chinese customers the other day," the employee said.
These traditional rugs date back to the ancient Persian Empire, which dominated a wide swath of the Middle east and North Africa. Using fine yarns, often made of wool dyed with natural plants, craftspeople take months to years to weave traditional patterns for a single section of a carpet.
According to the Iran National Carpet Center, handwoven rug exports during the 10 months up to January came to some $230 million. This is roughly half of the $500 million annual level Iran enjoyed before the sanctions were imposed. In addition to restricting remittances to and from Iran, the U.S. banned imports of Iranian carpets. Most of the restrictions were lifted in January, on the condition that Iran halts most of its nuclear development.
Iran plans to soon resume rug exports to the U.S., which had been the largest importer of the carpets.
But while Iran struggled through the sanctions, a new power dynamic took hold of the global market, one that now presents Iran with a formidable opponent. The owner of a large chain of carpet stores that also has outlets in Turkey is concerned that fake rugs from India and China that copy traditional Persian patterns are replacing the genuine articles. The quality of machine weaving has improved over years, and foreign-made rugs are sometimes sold as "Persian."
Still, Iranian rug businesses appear to believe they will be able to take back market share. Iranian rugs are "the best in the world," merchants tell themselves. And excellent designs are not the only charm of handwoven Persian rugs, Hashemi said. "As it is used over years, a rug can look even more beautiful," he said, "and its value increases."
This is a typical sales pitch, but can it help Iran come back to dominate the market?