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2,700-year-old Persian artifact a gift of U.S. diplomacy to Iran?

By Tara Kangarlou and Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Sat September 28, 2013
The United States returns an ancient Iranian artifact, as relations appear to thaw
The United States returns an ancient Iranian artifact, as relations appear to thaw
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A 2,700 year-old silver chalice may be a new token of friendship between the United States and Iran
  • It had been in New York since 2003, when an art dealer smuggled it to New York
  • Iran's cultural heritage chief hopes its return will mark a lively cultural exchange with the U.S.
  • Mohammad-Ali Najafi says the ice between Washington and Tehran has thawed

Washington (CNN) -- A 2,700 year-old silver chalice may be a new token of friendship between the United States and Iran, at least that's the way Iran's cultural heritage chief sees it.

Whatever the case, Mohammad-Ali Najafi was palpably delighted Friday to see the ancient Persian artifact return to its homeland. The ceremonial drinking vessel -- or rhyton -- had gotten snagged in a U.S. customs warehouse for years, held up by bad diplomatic relations.

It had been in New York since 2003, when an art dealer smuggled it into the country from Iran.

Customs officials have long wanted to return the rhyton to Iran, according to a New York Post report. But decades of frigid relations between Washington and Tehran kept it frozen in bureaucratic limbo.

Winning hearts

President Obama broke that ice Friday with a historic phone chat with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as the Islamic republic's leader was just about to leave the United States.

It was the first time a U.S. president has spoken to his Iranian counterpart since 1979.

The thaw may have been enough to free up the rhyton, which takes the shape of a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head of a bird of prey. It was fashioned in the Achaemenid era, the early Persian Empire, around 700 BC.

The State Department announced in a tweet that the United States returned it this week. U.S. officials handed it off directly to Najafi's delegation, he said.

"We are taking this as America's souvenir to the Iranian people," Najafi told CNN.

A souvenir from abroad is something Iranians don't take as trivial. It has a special place of warmth in Persian culture.

He will present it Saturday to the nation after he lands in Tehran. "I believe this will have a very positive affect on the Iranians," he said.

And what wins Najafi's heart has a good chance of pleasing Iran's new president. Hassan Rouhani recently appointed Najafi as one of a dozen vice presidents, making him the guardian of the country's most important museums and cultural institutions.

Najafi, himself a progressive reform politician, who has run for office in the past, accompanied Rouhani to New York, where the Iranian president spoke at the United Nations General Assembly.

Cultural charm offensive

In their phone conversation, the two presidents spoke about Tehran's nuclear program, Obama said.

"Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran."

It will be a long path to restored relations, the president said, but it could lead to the end of crippling economic sanctions against Iran, which could help "the Iranian people fulfill their potential."

If Najafi has his way that potential will include the exchange with the United States of a lot of art, artifacts and archeology -- set to classical music.

"I adamantly believe in cultural diplomacy, and I believe the thing that could improve relations between US and Iran after the years and softens the harshness of this relationship is cultural diplomacy," he said.

He appears to have already kicked off a cultural charm offensive towards the United States in his short time in office.

Najafi has met with officials from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art about potential exhibitions of Iranian artifacts, he said. He has parlayed with academics from the near Eastern studies program of University of Chicago.

"We agreed to have a joint program in future studies and research on these artifacts."

As far as Najafi is concerned, the times of extreme tension between the countries are over.

"Mr. Rouhani, in an event held for Iranians last night (Thursday) specifically said that 'the ice between Iran and US has been melted,' and I think if this is accurate, which I'm certain that it is, we will have no problems in the areas of education, sciences and culture in the next few months."

Najafi is also interested in seeing the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra play next year in Tehran.

If they can pull it off, he said, the concert would mark the 50th anniversary of the last time the orchestra played there.

If the diplomatic tone makes the music, Najafi seems eager to strike up the orchestra.

CNN's Tara Kangarlou reported from Washington; Ben Brumfield wrote and reported from Atlanta; CNN's Jim Sciutto contributed to this report

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