Iran, U.S. Allied in Protecting Artifacts

Vanessa Muros, Sarah Barack and Alison Whyte of the Oriental Institute in Chicago pack Persepolis tablets for shipment to Iran in 2004. The tablets are now part of a lawsuit by some victims of a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem.
Vanessa Muros, Sarah Barack and Alison Whyte of the Oriental Institute in Chicago pack Persepolis tablets for shipment to Iran in 2004. The tablets are now part of a lawsuit by some victims of a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem. (Photos By Jason Smith)

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

CHICAGO -- Iran and the United States make an unlikely pair these days, dueling over nuclear plans and radical Islam. Yet lawyers for the feuding governments are on the same side here in a dispute over thousands of ancient Persian artifacts held by a Chicago museum.

Their opponent is a lawyer trying to collect Iranian cash for survivors of a bloody Jerusalem suicide bombing.

In a case that raises issues of victims' rights and cultural heritage, Rhode Island lawyer David J. Strachman aims to seize and sell Iranian property -- including thousands of 2,500-year-old clay artifacts known as the Persepolis tablets -- and channel the profits to victims of the 1997 terrorist attack.

State Department lawyers and a Washington attorney for Iran contended last week in Chicago's federal courthouse that the priceless Iranian property is protected from seizure by the sovereign immunity doctrine. Art and archeology experts speak in much more personal terms.

"There's absolutely no justification for this. It's a bizarre, almost surreal kind of thing," said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which has studied the unbaked clay tablets on loan from Iran since the 1930s. "The Iranians are understandably furious about this. You'd have to imagine how we would feel if we loaned the Liberty Bell to Russia and a Russian court put it up for auction."

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki described the case on June 30 as an "indecent cultural move by the United States." He said if federal courts approved the sale, Iran could make retaliatory legal claims against the United States for supporting the 1953 coup in Tehran and backing Iraq during the deadly 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

Ten days later, Iran dispatched Washington lawyer Thomas Corcoran to Chicago after years of refusing to participate in the original terrorism case or the Chicago artifacts litigation.

"Things were looking bad for the Iranians," Corcoran said. "Iran asked me to note an appearance to assert Iran's immunities."

The events that led to the courthouse began Sept. 4, 1997, when three suicide bombers detonated their explosives in the crowded Ben Yehuda marketplace. Five Israelis died, and more than 100 people were wounded, including a number of foreign tourists. The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, took responsibility for the attack.

Six years later in Washington, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled that a group of bombing victims and surviving relatives could claim $423.5 million in damages from Iran as a sponsor of Hamas. The award included $300 million in punitive damages.

The question for Strachman and other lawyers was how to collect. They located a home in Lubbock, Tex., that the late shah had purchased for his son. They navigated its sale for $400,000 and focused on Iranian art and artifacts held by museums in Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan.

The Oriental Institute and its holdings from Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, became a primary target.


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