The Impact of Sanctions on Iranian Artists and the Persian Rug Trade

Crippling sanctions on Iran not only impact Iran’s arts and crafts industry, but also have a spillover impact on Iranian-American businesses in the United States. Sanctions have limited Iranian artists’ opportunities to display their works in U.S. galleries, and have impacted American-owned rug businesses in the U.S., as well as overall consumer tastes.

While the sale and exchange of Iranian art is legal under the sanctions, as art is classified as “informational material,” sanctions restrict international shipping services to/from Iran. Thus, some artists are forced to send their works to the U.S. with passengers. In an interview with the Iranian-American Chamber of Commerce, Sarah Barzmehri, the director and founder of Exhibit9 Gallery, stated that an obstacle that U.S. galleries have when purchasing works from Iran is that there is no proper way to bring the works to the U.S. When they are sent to the U.S. with passengers, the works are often damaged and unpresentable, leaving some collectors, such as herself, no longer able to purchase works from Iran.

Additionally, obtaining travel visas to the U.S. has become increasingly difficult for Iranian artists and curators, as Rebecca Proctor captured in her comprehensive 2019 piece on how sanctions impact the Iranian art world. Restricted in their ability to bring their artwork to the U.S. to be displayed or to even attend awards or exhibition openings in the U.S., the international exposure of Iranian artists is hindered, and American curators and collectors are left with limited clientele. As Sara Barzmehri observes, “the lack of cultural connections between the U.S. and Iran is a mutual artistic and cultural loss for both nations.”

Another artistic industry that suffers is that of Persian rugs. Renowned for their quality, intricacy, color, and design, sanctions have endangered the ancient craft of Persian carpet-making. Unlike artwork, Persian rugs are classified as a “good” and are prohibited from being exported to the U.S., which severely impacted Iranian-American businesses in this area. As the trade loses profitability, many Iranian weavers are finding new jobs and Persian rug stores in Iran are closing.

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Overdyed antique Persian Rug
Overdyed Antique Persian Rug

Nevertheless, the sale of Persian rugs in the U.S. persists, but not necessarily under circumstances that are beneficial to U.S. economic security. In an interview with the Iranian-American Chamber of Commerce, ABC Rug Outlet stated that in some cases, Persian rugs are purchased by countries such as Pakistan, where they get processed, acid-washed, and then dyed with another color, usually a non-traditional color, and transformed into a new product which is then exported to the U.S.

As Persian rug producers and businesses suffer under sanctions, other weaving countries have stepped up to the plate, seizing on the market gap that encouraged the production and imitation of Persian rug designs by other countries. While these imitations often are lower in quality, they have an attractive price tag, especially when considering that the price of Persian rugs in the U.S. has increased due to both scarcity and appreciation.


Some Iranian-American Persian rug stores have been forced to shut their doors while others have decided to rebrand, offering rugs from other countries, imitation rugs, and contemporary rugs. According to ABC Rug Outlet, even if sanctions on Iranian carpets were removed, re-entering the market would be challenging because of not being up to date with the market and trends, and because consumers who have looked at alternative options to Persian rugs will be “convinced that alternative designs and colors would work best for their home.”

The future is uncertain; in the meantime, sanctions and their ineffectual exemptions have side effects that undermine artistic growth in Iran, hamper American-owned businesses and art collectors, and decrease awareness of the contributions Iranians make to the artistic world.

By Nikki Vafai