The Iranian government has threatened to sever cultural relations with the British Museum in a dispute over a prized clay artefact that echoes the recent souring of diplomatic ties between Tehran and London.
The threat will come as an embarrassment to Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, who has made strenuous efforts to establish cultural links with Iranian scholars at a time of rising political tensions. On Tuesday, the Iranian foreign ministry threatened to downgrade ties with the UK over what it sees as British and US attempts to stoke post-election unrest.
The row has been provoked by the discovery of two small fragments of inscribed clay in a drawer at the museum. The pieces of tablet have been hailed as an important find because they offer vital clues to the meaning of the Cyrus Cylinder, a document by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, inscribed in clay, that has iconic status in Iran and is one of the museum’s most treasured possessions.
The museum had agreed to lend the cylinder to Iran after it borrowed several key works from Iranian museums for its acclaimed exhibition on Shah Abbas, the Iranian emperor, last year.