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Iran at odds with France over ancient artworks

Iran has declared a cultural war with one of the world's largest museums, the Louvre in Paris, which it accuses of reneging on a promise to send part of its collection of ancient Persian artefacts to an exhibition in Tehran.

The Iranian vice president and culture minister, Hamid Baghai, said this week that Tehran was cutting all relations with the museum but he failed to pursue a threat, made in February, to sever all cultural links between Iran and France.

The dispute has similarities with a row last year between Tehran and the British Museum. Iran demanded damages and threatened to cut links with the London museum after it postponed the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the most significant examples of early cuneiform writing from ancient Persia. The cylinder was eventually sent in September to a very successful exhibition in the capital.

Officials at the Louvre deny promising to send part of their Persian collection – one of the finest in the world – for display in Iran. They say a general cultural accord with Iran, which ends in June, spoke vaguely of possible loans but made no commitments.

Iran has not publicly asked for any specific items in the collection but the museum holds some of the most important Persian objects, including a basalt tablet engraved with the Code of Hammurabi, found in Iran by the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan in 1901. The code of the 17th century BC Babylonian king is one of the oldest known sets of laws.

The tablet includes the injunction: "If a man knocks the teeth out of another man his own teeth will be knocked out."

Although the Franco-Iranian row has not got to the fisticuffs stage it does reflect an increasingly militant attitude by several Middle Eastern countries to large parts of their ancient cultural heritage being in museums in Europe and the United States.

Hamid Baghai, Iran's culture, heritage, handicrafts and tourism minister, said: "Based on our agreement, [the Louvre] should have sent us some artefacts in order to set up an exhibition here but for unknown reasons they have not."

"In the cultural field, we do not accept that European countries look down on us."

Officials at the Louvre said the museum had never signed a "precise and definite" agreement to send items to Iran. They said there was a "partnership" agreement which spoke of possible exhibitions but no definite plans.

Iran did, however, lend artefacts from the Safavid-era (1501-1736) to the Louvre's exhibition called, "The Song of the World" from October 2007. Tehran claims it was led to expect the French museum would allow part of its Persian collection to go to Iran in return.

The Louvre collection, running to hundreds of objects, was removed from Persia, as it was then known, by French archaeologists in the 19th century.

As well as the Code of Hammurabi, the Louvre also has large sections of ornamental walls from the palace of the Persian emperor Darius I (522-486 BC) including a beautiful frieze of lions and a frieze of archers. These were acquired in the 1880s by the French archaeologist Marcel Dieulafoy.