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The Iranian pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015
The Iranian pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015

During its years of international isolation, Iran saw "culture" solely as a way to promote its Shia Islamic heritage. Yet Iranian officials recently have begun to take an interest in questions of national identity, heritage and Iranian civilization that are unrelated to the Islamic clerical regime and its values.

As the country prepares to move back into the international fold following the accord on its nuclear program and an end to sanctions, the question of national identity — or, public image? — may now be seen as a crucial component of Iran"s international standing and exercising of soft power. The potential of both trade, and particularly expected new flocks of tourists, means fighting for culture can become a priority.

Earlier this month, Iran announced that the United States would be returning a collection of disputed prehistoric fossils to Tehran.

That was followed by the declaration of Farhad Nazari, an official of the state Cultural Heritage Organization, condemning Azerbaijan's move to display an "Azerbaijani miniature" — possibly a copy of the Book of Kings, a 10th century Persian epic — at the Milan 2015 Expo. Nazari told the semi-official ISNA agency that Iran must respond, even with legal action, to the Republic of Azerbaijan's bid to "appropriate" parts of Iran's cultural heritage.

The issue, like so many cultural or ethnological questions, is complex and divisive. Nazari said officials must forge an official posture and response to such situations. "This incident must not be overlooked," he said, and Azerbaijan's conduct was "not correct." Its culture, he recalled, "was once part of Iran's culture, and now they want to get their hands on" Iran's heritage. He said Azerbaijan could "register" the fact that it had a copy of the Book of Kings on its territory, but merely for the record — not as a part of its own heritage.

Iran, a multicultural state bordering a region in chaos, has undergone decades of relative political and economic weakness following the 1979 revolution. While Azerbaijan may not wish to provoke its neighbor with crass nationalism, playing with culture may be a quieter way of chipping away at Iran's standing.

The Tehran newspaper E'temad separately cited a deputy-head of the Heritage Organization as saying that officials would soon go to Chicago to discuss the return of tablets from the ancient Achaemenid dynasty. Mohammad Hasan Talebian, deputy head of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), did not give details of the tablets, or state if they were being kept at the well-known Oriental Institute. But Talebian said the "Achaemenid consignment is extremely important to us."

Such concern is a distant cry from the early days after the revolution, when radical Shia Islam was all that mattered. Indeed, Iranians remember when the notorious Revolutionary Courts prosecutor Sadeq Khalkhali threatened to send a mob to southern Iran to destroy the precious remains of the Achaemenid capital, Persepolis.

Now, for Tehran, any such treasures must be preserved, promoted and returned when required. Both for Iranian pride, and the coming wave of tourists.

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