18 Apr 2011

The Persian relic that divides Iran's leaders

Saturday morning and the British Charge d’Affaires breaks cover to issue a public condemnation of Iran’s human rights record, and urges Tehran to respect its obligations on this score. She does so at the very moment that the Government in Tehran is handing back the most precious artefact to reside beyond Iran’s border.

The Cyrus cylinder has been on loan to Iran – against Foreign Office advice, since September. Hundreds of thousands (Iran claims millions) of people have filed past it – a tiny 2,500-year-old fragment of Persian historic culture laid on a velvet cushion. The relic has cuniform lettering on it and is regarded as one of the very earliest statements of human rights known to mankind. Yesterday saw its return to the custody of the British Museum..where it has lain since it was dug up in babylon in the late 19th century. It will arrive back in its showcase this afternoon.

What better a moment for the Foreign Office to remind Iran of its obligations. It was after all the very same Foreign Office who advised that the cylinder would never be returned by the regime in Tehran.

In fact the entire cultural exchange has proved vastly important. Not least because the ‘non mullah’ establishment in Tehran has been able to get away with a ‘nationalist narrative’ of Iran which long predates Islam. Hence the dislike of the object in the highest echelons of the clergy. A more far sighted operative might have predicted that they wanted this pre-Islamic object like a hole in the head. They will have been only too pleased to see the back of it.

The Cyrus Cylinder has ignited a new debate in Iran about the country’s culture and history. the mullahs boycotted the exhibition. The President, the man who could well be his successor, and a current Vice President all embraced the Cyrus Cylinder. Has Britain accidentally witnessed the birth of a new secular movement in Iran that has secured backing from one of many key power quarters in this complex country?

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