By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A03
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.
Excavated by a leading institute archeologist in the early 1930s, the tablets are considered a remarkable record of daily transactions from 2,500 years ago. Each text is about half the size of a deck of cards and bears characters in a dialect of Elamite, understood by perhaps a dozen scholars in the world.
"It tells you how the Persian empire worked," Stein said. While much knowledge of ancient Persia came from the accounts of others, most famously the Greek storyteller Herodotus, Stein called the tablets "the first chance to hear the Persians speaking of their own empire."
"It's valuable because it's a group of tablets, thousands of them from the same archive. It's like the same filing cabinet. They're very, very valuable scientifically," Stein said. He said the details largely concern food for people on diplomatic or military missions.
Loaned to the Oriental Institute seven decades ago for study, experts have painstakingly pieced together and deciphered many of the texts, with the understanding that they would be returned to Iran. The institute returned 37,000 tablets and fragments to Iran and was preparing another shipment when Strachman intervened.
Strachman filed suit in 2004 on behalf of his clients, including lead plaintiff Jenny Rubin, a New York fashion designer. He also targeted other holdings gathered from Iran by the institute and the nearby Field Museum.
"We are seeking to enforce the judgment that was awarded to my client," said Strachman, who considers it ironic that the terrorism-fighting Bush administration is backing Iran's immunity claims -- "blatantly opposing us," as he put it. Meanwhile, Iranian commentators have hammered U.S. authorities with "crazy conspiratorial things in recent days."
"They've gotten a little wackier," Strachman said. "They were saying this is a Zionist conspiracy."
In each case, attorneys for the defendants say that the property does not belong to Iran or that it is not subject to seizure. The museums sought to assert Iran's sovereign immunity claim to protect the artifacts, but U.S. District Judge Blanche M. Manning ruled that Iran must do so itself.
When Corcoran made his appearance last week after being retained by Iran on July 10, the case's dynamics shifted, said Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural property law specialist at DePaul University.
"It changes things pretty dramatically. If foreign sovereign immunity can be asserted, the case should be more or less resolved," she said. "Iran wins on this case, I think the other cases are blown out of the water."
That would suit Stein, who thinks larger issues are at stake.
"Would Egypt loan the treasures of King Tut if they thought they could be seized by anyone who had a beef with the government of Egypt?" he asked.
"Scholarship depends on the ability to trust each other to work above the level of politics and infighting. The whole structure of scholarly collaboration would fall apart, and the whole world would be very much the poorer for it."