Chicago's Persian heritage crisis

Chicago's Persian heritage crisis

Chicago's Persian heritage crisis (تاراج سرمايه باستانی ايران در شيکاگو "in Persian") refers to a threat to seize invaluable Persian antiquities kept at the University of Chicago by the United States federal courts and also a threat to numerous other Persian antiquities kept in the Field museum in Chicago. It has been seen by Iranians as an example for the hostility of United States federal court system toward Iranian people and Persian heritage.cite news | title = Iran warns of reciprocation if US denies assets | date = 2006-07-01 | url = | accessdate = 2006-07-27 ]


In 2003, a group of victims of a September 4, 1997 explosion in Israel (a suicide bombing in Ben Yehuda mall in Jerusalem) won $71 million in a judgment in a U.S. court against Iran cite news | url = | publisher = Chicago Sun-Times | first = Andrew | last = Herrmann | date = 2006-06-27 | title = Victims claim win in fight for U. of C. tablets | accessdate = 2006-07-27 ] cite news | url = | title = Iranian Antiquities May Be Seized in Suit | date = 2006-06-28 | accessdate = 2006-07-27 ] for being a "state sponsor of terrorism".cite news | title = Persian treasure trove on the line at U. of C. | publisher = Chicago Tribune | date = 2006-06-28 | url =,1,7737878.story?coll=chi-newslocalnearnorthwest-hed | first = Ron | last = Grossman | accessdate = 2006-07-27 (requires registration)] Hamas had claimed responsibility for the attack, so some American visitors filed the federal lawsuit against Iran and Iranian officials, claiming that Hamas was financed by Iran, making the country legally responsible for their suffering. The case is formally called "Jenny Rubin, et al vs. the Islamic Republic of Iran, et al".

After Iran ignored the judgment, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued a default judgment for the plaintiffs, awarding them $423.5 million in damages., including $300 million in punitive damages.cite news | title = Iran, U.S. Allied in Protecting Artifacts | publisher = Washington Post | date = 2006-07-18 | url = | first = Peter | last = Slevin | page = A03 | accessdate = 2006-08-29 ]

After the verdict, the question was how to collect. Rhode Island attorney David J. Strachman, along with other attorneys, representing the plaintiffs, found that the late shah had purchased a home in Lubbock, Texas for his son, which was sold for $400,000; they then went after Iranian-owned objects held by U.S. museums in Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan. The Oriental Institute and its holdings from Persepolis became a primary target. Strachman said collectors are interested in the antiquities, potentially for tens of millions of dollars.

The university had argued sovereign immunity, i.e, under federal law, "certain property owned by foreign governments is protected from court judgments." The university was arguing that on Iran's behalf, saying that "the Iranians were gun-shy because of bad experiences with the American legal system." The victims characterized the university and other institutions as defending Iran.


In June 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Blanche M. Manning ruled that only Iran, which has not acknowledged the suit, can claim its own rights. Manning said that the university's "brazen accusation that the courts of the United States are hostile to Iran and that, as a result, Iran should be excused from bothering to assert its rights, is wholly unsupported."

The university however, in light of the new ruling, has argued that seizing the tablets would frighten foreign museums away from loans to U.S. institutions, and that U.S.-owned objects overseas might also be seized.

Background on University of Chicago's artifacts

The Achaemenid (or Persepolis) clay tablets were loaned to the University of Chicago in 1937.cite news | url = | title = University of Chicago returns ancient Persian tablets loaned by Iran | date = 2004-04-29 | accessdate = 2006-07-27 ] They were discovered by archaeologists in 1933 and are legally the property of the National Museum of Iran and the Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization. The artifacts came with the understanding that they would be returned to Iran. The tablets, from Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, date to about 500 B.C.

The tablets give a view of daily life, with things like daily rations of barley that were given to workers in nearby regions of the empire. These tablets were sent to the capital to keep track of how they were paying workers. Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said that details largely concern food for people on diplomatic or military missions. Each tablet is about half the size of a deck of Playing cards and has characters of a dialect of Elamite, an extinct language understood by perhaps a dozen scholars in the world.

Stein called it "the first chance to hear the Persians speaking of their own empire." Charles Jones, Research Associate and Librarian at the Oriental Institute and tablet expert compared them to "credit card receipts." Most of our current knowledge about the ancient Persian empire comes from the accounts of others, most famously the Greek storyteller Herodotus. Stein added, "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."

The university's Oriental Institute had been returning them to Iran in small batches. The Institute had already returned 37,000 tablets and fragments to Iran and were preparing another shipment when Strachman intervened.

Field Museum case

The case of Chicago's Field Museum is however different. It faces a similar lawsuit, but argues that its Persian collection was bought on the open market and is not owned by Iran.

Larger international impact

According to the UNESCO "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property", transfer of ownership of any and all Persian antiques is illegal. [cite web | url = | title = Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property | work = UNESCO | date = 1970-11-17 | accessdate = 2006-07-27 ] On July 10 2006, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said the U.S. court decision was "illegal."cite news | title = Iran: Tehran, U.S. Academics Challenge Seizure Of Persian Tablets | url = | first = Golnaz | last = Esfandiari | date = 2006-07-12 | publisher = RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ]

US government position

The executive branch of the US government, in particular the US State Department have been supportive of the Iranian government's position in this case, arguing like the University of Chicago that the artifacts are protected under the sovereign immunity doctrine.

As in several other cases involving U.S. citizens and foreign nations, the United States Department of Justice argued that national interest is better served if such disputes are resolved through diplomatic negotiations rather than legal suit. Poking fun at the United States government, Manning wrote that " [t] he government relegates the [key] argument to a footnote."

Iranian response

Iran has strongly condemned a U.S. court ruling authorizing the seizure of ancient clay tablets. In late June 2006, Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned that "if the US denies Iran's right to its properties and assets to satisfy judgments by some of its court, Tehran will reciprocate the action." Other officials expressed outrage, too, saying they will appeal to the International Court of Justice, UNESCO, and other international bodies. Iranian Foreign Minister said "one of Americans' usual propaganda ploys is raising claims at the US courts based on the country's civil laws, which is contrary to the international law." He said that Iran had adopted a similar law in 1999. This has resulted in complaints against the United States for such things as its role in Operation Ajax and the Iran–Iraq War. So far, three billion dollars in penalties have been issued against the US government. Mottaki says that Iran would follow up the case with UNESCO.

In September 2006 former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami met with Oriental Institute director Gil Stein and U. of C. provost Richard Saller to discuss the future of the tablets. Iran has characterized the situation as a U.S.-engineered heist. Khatami argued that the tablets "do not belong to governments but to the Iranian nation and the world". [cite news | url = | title = Iranian official sees disputed relics | publisher = Chicago Sun-Times | first = Andrew | last = Herrmann | date = 2006-09-06 | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ]

Iranian embassies around the world condemned the ruling, which they say violates international norms and regulations. The Iranian embassy in Thailand strongly criticized a US federal court order to auction more than 30,000 clay tablets obtained during excavations in the Persepolis in 1935 and placed in the University of Chicago's museum on loan. The embassy's statement reads: "The tablets were transferred to the US and delivered to the institute as part of the cultural heritage of the Iranian people." [cite news | title = Iranian embassy in Thailand blasts US federal court's ruling on Iran's cultural artifacts | date = 2006-07-06 | publisher = Islamic Republic News Agency | url = | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ]

Apart from Iranian government, several Iranian NGOs including "The National Iranian American Council (NIAC)" and the "Iranian American Bar Association (IABA)" made attempts to protect the items.cite news | title = Legal Disputes Against Harvard and the University Of Chicago over Persian Artifacts Continue | date = 2006-08-11 | first = Ehsan | last = Tabesh | url = | publisher = National Iranian American Council | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ] Whereas NIAC is sympathetic to victims of the terror attack, seeking the confiscation of the 2,500 year old artifacts that are part of the Iranian nation's cultural and historical heritage is simply unjustified.

About 3,000 Iranians living outside the country have signed a petition calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to step in to reverse the ruling. They argue that the Iranian people should not be punished for "whatever the Islamic regime of Iran is doing in the international arena."

Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago said, "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."

In response to Iran's reaction, Strachman said that Iranian commentators had been going into "crazy conspiracy theories", including calling it a Zionist conspiracy." Strachman did not comment on the fact that Farah Pahlavi, former empress of Iran who is not tied to the current government of Iran, has also voiced her strong objection to Strachman's efforts to seize the tablets. [Letter of Farah Pahlavi to Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of UNESCO, July 4, 2006. Link: [] ] At the same time, Strachman, who has devoted his representation cases almost entirely to litigating Palestinian groups [ [ David J. Strachman - a Providence, Rhode Island (RI) Family Law Lawyer ] ] , studied in Israel for a while during his educational career by virtue of an Israeli scholarship. [ [ - This Month's Interview ] ]

In early July 2006, following the decision, Iran sent Washington lawyer Thomas Corcoran to Chicago after years of refusing to participate in either the original terrorism case or the Chicago artifacts litigation, to assert Iran's immunities. Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural property law specialist at DePaul University, said that Corcoran's appearance changes matters greatly, as the crux of the judge's ruling was that Iran had to assert sovereign immunity itself. "It changes things pretty dramatically. If foreign sovereign immunity can be asserted, the case should be more or less resolved," she said.


ee also

*Sanctions against Iran
*Sanctions against Iranian scientists
*Denyse Berend

External links

* [ Persian Artifacts, Victims of Political Crisis]
* [ Iran, US In New Cultural Battle]
* [ Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago]
* [ Persepolis Fortification Archive Project] This site provides information on the Persepolis Fortification Archive project based at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
*BBC reports: [ Chicago's Persian heritage crisis] fa icon
*United Press International reports: [ Iranian antiquities may be seized in suit]
* [,20867,18712017-12332,00.html Report by "The Australian"]
* [ Correspondence between National Museum of Iran and University of Chicago] fa icon
*ISNA reports: [ The US Court ruling is a political move] fa icon [] en icon
* interview in 2004: [ Going home: On University of Chicago's return of ancient tablets to Iran]
*Hamid Reza Assefi of Iran's Foreign Affairs Ministry: [ We will pursue these events at UN's headquarters and in UNESCO] fa icon
* [ Prosecutor General of Iran's Supreme Court: These events are an assault on the cultural heritage of Iran] fa icon
* [ Iran asked UNESCO to step in] (BBC Persian)
* [ Illegal decision of a judge]
* [ Confiscation of Iranian Historic Artifacts in US]
* [ Fate of Persian Tablets Still Undetermined (Jan 2007)]

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