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LONDON: Escalating economic pressure combined with multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran have led to a spate of robberies from royal tombs and widespread looting of Iran’s historical cultural sites.

“The graves and mausoleums of our kings are openly known and accessible for excavation,” said one infamous thief, who has adopted an online persona modelled on Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot.

“How a toiling worker became prosperous through digging for gold,” reads another of his Instagram posts.

These sentiments are indicative of a wider trend in Iran; desperate individuals looting the country’s rich cultural past to sustain them in the present.

The UN’s body for world heritage sites, UNESCO, ranks Iran seventh in the world in heritage possession — but the country, facing perennial economic decline, is now plagued by looting and site destruction, according to the UK-based Heritage Management Organization.

“Sanctions on Iran have led to the perfect storm for antiquities looting,” said Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer specializing in art and heritage.

As the sanctions bite and Iran’s wider economic system breaks down, Amineddoleh explained that “opportunistic individuals turn to archaeological theft and looting.”

She added: “People have treated their cultural heritage as a resource to be extracted.”

According to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, Iran is particularly susceptible to criminal gangs: “Due to its ancient history, large number of cultural sites and geographic location, the country is vulnerable to looting, trafficking, and smuggling of its cultural property, art and antiquities.”

In the past four months, 22 illegal digs were discovered at Iran’s heritage sites, according to an Iranian state-backed news channel, and last week five men were arrested in the southwest of the country, accused of belonging to a gang of looters. 

Officials have pledged to crack down on looting activity, but experts believe that the practice is now so widespread that it is out of their control.

“Any illegal and unauthorized excavation and metal-detecting activities aimed at pillaging our country’s heritage will be met with the power of the law,” said one colonel. 

There are now regular reports of people dying in cave-ins as they search for loot and, according to Evangelos Kyriakidis, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Kent and founding director of the Heritage Management Organization, these reports are just a snapshot of the wider issue.

“We receive hundreds of reports every week on illicit excavations around the country, which to my mind means there must be thousands occurring because most of them are not reported,” he said.

Referring to treasure hunters such as “Poirot” who post about their exploits for their online followers, Kyriakidis added: “People in that network are becoming audacious.”

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