Damien Hirst leads Britart's diplomatic mission to Iran

... but Antony Gormley and Mona Hatoum are withdrawn to appease Islamic hard-liners
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Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of Britart, is spearheading a British cultural and diplomatic charm offensive in Iran - but other artists seen as more mainstream, such as Antony Gormley, have been deemed too controversial.

Contentious works, including a Hirst sculpture incorporating a human skeleton never exhibited before, will go on show in Tehran next month, just after elections that have already caused bitter tensions between Islamic hard-liners and liberals. Other works were held back by the British Council, however, including body casts by Gormley and a wheelchair with knives by Mona Hatoum.

The Hirst work, called Resurrection, consists of a human skeleton glued vertically to two interlocking panels of glass. Owned by the artist's agent, Jay Jopling, it is the centrepiece of the first exhibition being staged in Iran by the British Council since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

"The British Council is trying to establish the kind of contact that exists on a non-political level," said Michael Willson, the organisation's director in Iran. But the timing of the show will be seen as an indication of warmer relations between Britain and Iran, following the theocratic regime's agreement late last year to open its nuclear facilities to inspection.

Britain and Iran restored full diplomatic relations in 1999 after a decade-long rift caused by the late Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. But Western culture remains a delicate issue in Iran, where political moderates are engaged in a bitter confrontation with conservatives in the run-up to the 20 February election.

The British exhibition opens four days later at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art, a meeting-place for young Iranians who chafe at the restrictions imposed by hard-line clerics.

The museum's director, Dr Ali-Reza Sami-Azar, who is well-practised at knowing how far to push the boundaries, plans to display Resurrection next to a large window at the entrance. While admitting it willbe "provocative", he said it would not "cross the red line", adding: "Artists should be allowed to express their own opinions. As long as it doesn't offend against religious sensibilities or display explicit eroticism, then it can be shown."

In this respect, Breath, a new work by Shirazeh Houshiary, a London-based Iranian female artist, is particularly daring. It consists of four video screens showing breath misting on glass as texts sacred to the four great world religions - Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism - are recited.

The British Council excluded other works from the show as "too risky", including Hatoum's wheelchair with knife blades for handles. Given Hatoum's Palestinian origins, said Dr Sami-Azar, the British felt "it might create a controversy due to feelings about suicide bombers". Those feelings have been illustrated by a row last week in Sweden, where Israel's ambassador smashed a work showing a suicide bomber's portrait floating in a pool of red liquid.

The British Council, said Dr Sami-Azar, had been "quite conservative, more so than us. We didn't reject any artist they proposed".

Five other Hirst works are in the exhibition, along with sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro and Eduardo Paolozzi. The recent Turner Prize nominee, Anya Gallaccio, will fill a gallery with 10,000 red roses.

Speaking of the tensions in Iran, Dr Sami-Azar said he "could be sacked at any moment", adding: "Everyone looks for some excuse to take advantage of a situation and to make political capital out of it. There are those who don't like the relatively open atmosphere we have managed to build up here."