Iran cut ties with the British Museum on Sunday in protest at repeated delays in the loan to Tehran of an ancient Persian treasure, the Cyrus Cylinder, a senior official said.
In London a British Museum statement expressed “great surprise.”
Hassan Mohseni of the cultural heritage and tourism organisation said relations were annulled after the London museum failed to transfer the artefact to Tehran.
“We confirm the cutting of ties and we consider it a closed chapter,” Mohseni, who heads the organisation’s public relations, told AFP.
The decision to sever ties with the museum was revealed earlier by Hamid Baghai, who heads the cultural heritage and tourism organisation.
“Since the Cyrus Cylinder has not been transferred to Iran, we will lodge a complaint against the British Museum to UNESCO and cut ties,” he was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
Baghai said the British Museum had failed to meet a final deadline of Sunday, leading to the cut and Tehran’s decision to notify the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
But the museum statement said it had confirmed its intention to lend the artefact and associated fragments of clay tablet to the National Museum of Tehran in the second half of July in a phone call to officials on February 2.
This was followed up with an email and faxed letter to Baghai on February 5, it said.
“The new announcement from Mr Baghai therefore comes as a great surprise,” it said.
“The British Museum has acted throughout in good faith, and values highly its hitherto good relations with Iran. It is to be hoped that this matter can be resolved as soon as possible.”
Many historians regard the Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879, as the world’s first declaration of human rights.
It was written at the order of Persian ruler Cyrus the Great after his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.
“The British Museum told us they will transfer it to us in September, then they said November, and then finally said January 16. We have so far spent around 200,000 dollars on additional security devices to protect the loaned cylinder,” Baghai said.
“Then we got a letter saying they cannot send the cylinder following the Ashura day incidents,” he said of deadly clashes in Tehran between security forces and opposition supporters on the day of a Shiite ritual on December 27.
Baghai said the museum later told Tehran it had more “fragments belonging to the cylinder and the cylinder will be transferred to Iran… So we gave them a final two weeks to keep their word” — a period which ended on Sunday.
Mohseni also said there would be no further visits by British archaeological teams to Iran following the cut in relations.
Diplomatic ties between Tehran and London have fluctuated since the creation of the Islamic republic in 1979, and further deteriorated after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June.
Tehran has accused London of fomenting the post-election riots and detained nine local British embassy staff.