Paying with the Past

Lawyers for victims of two 20th-century terrorist bombings are trying to force the sale of a cache of 2,500-year-old Persian tablets currently on loan to Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

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Represented by wedge-shaped cuneiform characters, the language on the tablets is a mixture of what one scholar calls “sloppy Elamite” (a little-understood ancient language) and Persian.

 

As with any such case, there are plenty of rumors: A Persian Gulf state will buy the archive; the recent financial agreements between the United States and Libya will provide a model for resolving U.S.-Iranian monetary claims; the folks in Washington will do something. More concretely, David Strachman is busy wrestling with Iran over discovery, and David Cook is going after both the fuel oil that British Petroleum and other global giants buy from Iran and the money Iran pays for refined oil on the international market. And, of course, each attorney is still trying to push the other’s lawsuit out of the way.

Despite the lack of resolution, however, the proceedings in Chicago have already made legal history. Presumably because it considered lawsuits brought under U.S. law to be illegitimate—and also because it seemingly had no assets that could be attached—Iran had long declined to appear in U.S. courts and contest the many suits filed against it. But in the proceedings related to the Persepolis tablets, it has for the first time sent attorneys to represent its interests—and, in an equally unprecedented move, the Bush administration has actually weighed in on the side of its nemesis. Apprehensive about repercussions from selling off what Stein, the Oriental lnstitute’s director, has characterized as “the Magna Carta of Iran,” the Bush Justice Department has filed three separate statements that effectively favor allowing Iran to keep the tablets. Not surprisingly, Strachman has criticized this step, telling the Washington Post that the government is “blatantly opposing us.” 

But for Laina Lopez, a lawyer at Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe, the Washington, D.C., firm representing Iran before Judge Manning, the problem is that the U.S. government’s support for letting Iran hold on to the artifacts doesn’t seem to matter. “From Iran’s point of view,” she said, “the Justice Department’s should be respected and deferred to, but that’s not what’s happened.”

Given all the legal wrangling, the fight over these centuries-old tablets may take years to resolve, no matter how the U.S. government weighs in on the dispute. Meanwhile, the Oriental Institute, the Field Museum, Iran, and more than 800 people who have suffered from terrorist attacks remain at loggerheads.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute

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