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Persian rugs will be imported once again after Iran embargo lifted

Persian rugs will be imported once again after Iran embargo lifted
Timonium, MD -- Esmail Borhani, owner of Borhani Rug Company, is the fourth-generation in the business. As a seller primarily of Persian rugs, he is happy to see the embargo on Persian rugs lifted. On the floor behind him is a turn-of-the-century Serapi Persian rug, created using vegetable dyes. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

To Esmail Borhani, the Persian rugs sold by his family for decades are enduring works of art, with vibrant blues, reds and golds handwoven in traditional patterns to create one-of-a-kind showpieces.

He owns Borhani Rug Co. in Timonium, which specializes in such carpets. They account for about three-quarters of his sales, but for several years now he has not been able to import any from Iran, which was known as Persia until 1935.

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He and other U.S. rug dealers relied on a supply built up before 2010, when the U.S. imposed more sanctions on Iran. As inventories dwindled, many dealers shifted to selling rugs made in India, Pakistan and China.

With the lifting of the embargo, dealers will be able to get merchandise again directly from Iran. Borhani is awaiting a shipment, likely a mix of new and antique carpets, that should arrive within a month and a half.

"We are happy the customers will get what they want," Borhani said Monday, standing on a century-old Persian rug displayed in his showroom. "The customer has a choice, a better choice. We have inventory there ready to be shipped."

Rug shipments are a small piece of the landmark nuclear accord with Iran that was put in place in January. Under the deal, Iran agreed to dismantle parts of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that have crippled the nation's economy.

For hundreds of years, Persian rugs have been handmade by small groups of weavers and dyed with natural ingredients such as walnut skins, pomegranates, roots and acorn cups. They are made of pure silk or wool.

Some rugs take years to weave. Though many countries produce handmade rugs, those from Iran are considered among the most precious because of the time spent and materials used in making them.

Before the embargo, experts say, the U.S. accounted for one-fifth of Iran's carpet exports.

Borhani grew up in Tabriz, Iran, where his father and grandfather ran a carpet business and members of the family still do today. He ran the business from Hamburg, Germany, before coming to the United States in 1975, four years before the Iranian revolution. The rug showroom has been on Greenspring Drive in Timonium for 17 years.

Persian rugs face growing competition from rugs made in other countries, to the point where prices are often as much as 40 percent less than they were 15 years ago, Borhani said. His rugs sell from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $100,000.

He has seen younger generations of clients drawn to lower-priced Persian replicas or carpets with more contemporary designs. But he also caters to the luxury market, where demand persists for traditional, handmade Persian products. Some customers have grown up with Persian rugs and come in looking for something with a similar pattern.

The rug industry has shifted in the decades since the first Iran trade embargo after the revolution and hostage crisis in 1979, said Jim Dulkerian, owner of Dulkerian Persian Rug. Co. in Baltimore.

"After the first embargo in 1979, when it was lifted, there were rugs waiting to get into the country," Dulkerian said. "This time, there was enough stock available" in the U.S.

Though Persian rugs still are considered the best rugs in the world, he said, they have lost market share to rugs from India, China and Pakistan, woven by Afghan refugees.

"I don't see a big rush for new rugs coming from Iran," he said. "Iran has lost market share over the years."

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Dulkerian anticipates little effect on his own business because he gets his rugs from wholesalers in New York.

"I deal a lot in older pieces and antique Persian rugs, and they were already here," he said. "I'm buying unique, one-of-a-kind pieces from wholesalers."

In places such as Southern California, home to the largest Persian community outside of Iran, the end of the embargo is reinvigorating a commercial lifeline that had gone cold during the nearly six-year import ban on Persian rugs.

Merchants in that area also hope to import other, lesser-known Iranian delights such as saffron, caviar and pistachios.

But experts say there is always the possibility of a renewed embargo.

"We still have sanctions on the table due to Iran's sponsorship of terrorism," said Josh Lockman, an international law professor at USC's Gould School of Law. "Businesses in Iran will still benefit, but it's far-fetched to say this is a wide opening. We are a long way away from the normalization of ties, unless there's a change in the regime's behavior."

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.

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