By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Alex Helmi, surrounded by Persian carpets stacked waist-high at his store in the so-called Persian Square section of Los Angeles, has been blocked from importing rugs from Iran since the United States imposed sanctions in 2010.
Helmi has about 3,000 of the carpets at his store Damoka, an inventory he has maintained to some extent by buying rugs second-hand from people in the United States.
Now he looks forward to importing the rugs directly under terms of a nuclear agreement announced on Tuesday by Iran and six major world powers that, if approved, would allow new Persian rugs to again be exported to the United States.
"Nobody in the world can make hand-made carpets better than Persians. They have been doing it for thousands of years," said Helmi, 59, who has been in the carpet business for nearly 40 years.
At his store in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, an area filled with businesses that cater to Southern California's large Iranian-American population, Helmi has hung a rug with circular and jagged designs that is 200 years old.
His most prized carpets, which he sees as investments, are offered for more than $200,000, and his least expensive rugs sell for about $5,000. He has watched the value of the rugs increase since sanctions were imposed in 2010, cutting his supply from Iran.
For Arash Yaraghi, dealing in Iranian carpets has been a family business for generations.
But the CEO of Safavieh, a seller of rugs and furniture with a dozen retail centers in New York City and surrounding areas, has been forced to nearly eliminate Persian rugs from his inventory. When he and a brother founded the business in 1978, that was all they sold.
That was interrupted by cycles of the United States imposing and lifting sanctions on Persian rugs since the 1980s, Yaraghi said.
During that time, India, China and Pakistan began producing rugs in the Persian style and exporting them to the United States. Yaraghi said they sold for about half the price of a Persian rug but were of a lower quality.
When he is able to resume imports of Persian carpets from Iran, he expects his firm Safavieh will have the opportunity to find products suited to modern American tastes.
"I'm excited about the variety of quality and the character of carpets that will come out of there that we've haven't seen for a long time," Yaraghi said.
Iran's carpet exports amounted to $635 million in 2005, according to figures from the state-owned Iran Carpet Company. It was not clear how the country's trade in Persian carpets fared in more recent years.
Even as the lifting of sanctions presents rug dealers with an opportunity, rising labor costs in Iran could complicate the picture, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
"These sanctions hit the carpet industry tremendously hard," he said.
(Additional reporting by Dave Adhicary and Lucy Nicholson in Los Angeles)