New York: A 2,700 year-old silver Persian chalice, snagged in a customs warehouse here for a decade, may be a new token of friendship between arch-foes, the US and Iran.
The State Department announced in a tweet that the US returned the ceremonial drinking vessel or rhyton to Iran last week, a day before President Barack Obama spoke to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani over phone - the first highest- level contact between two countries in more than 30 years.
The chalice 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. But decades of frigid relations between Washington and Tehran kept it frozen in bureaucratic limbo.
Finally, last week, US authorities handed over the vessel to Mohammad-Ali Najafi, Iranian vice president and head of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation.
The rhyton has 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.
"We are taking this as America`s souvenir to the Iranian people," Najafi was quoted as saying by CNN.
"I believe this will have a very positive affect on the Iranians," he said.
Najafi, himself a progressive reform politician, accompanied Rouhani to New York, where the Iranian president spoke at the United Nations General Assembly.
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.
During his stay here, Najafi has met with officials from New York`s Metropolitan Museum of Art about potential exhibitions of Iranian artifacts, he said.
"We agreed to have a joint programme in future studies and research on these artifacts," Najafi said, adding that the times of extreme tension between the countries are over.
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.
The US and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah regime after massive countrywide protests and led to the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Obama broke that ice on Friday with a historic phone chat with Rouhani, as the Islamic republic`s leader was just about to leave the United States and discussed Tehran`s controversial nuclear programme.
It was the first time a US president has spoken to his Iranian counterpart since 1979.