Washington, DC – Today, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) — the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization — presented a brief Amicus Curiae to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Illinois Eastern Division in a lawsuit that seeks to seize and auction off thousands of historic Persian artifacts of substantial historical importance currently on display at the University of Chicago.
“NIAC believes these artifacts qualify as cultural property and are part of the cultural heritage of all persons of Iranian descent,” said Trita Parsi, President of NIAC. “Our role is to ensure that they are not confiscated and auctioned off to the highest bidder – an act that would not only contradict the principles embodied in numerous laws and treaties, but set a terrible precedent in America and for several similar cases as well as potentially result in retaliation against U.S. properties worldwide.”
In presenting its brief, NIAC seeks to act as an amicus curiae or “friend of the Court,” and will ask the Court to consider the cultural importance of these artifacts when interpreting the provisions of law that will govern its ruling.
Having faced failures to satisfy judgments awarded by federal courts in 2003 against Iranian state-owned assets in the U.S., the plaintiffs in Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran are now targeting ancient tablets dating back as early as 515 BC from Iran’s historic ceremonial capital, Persepolis. Nearly 8,000 of these tablets are still on loan at the University of Chicago and being studied and catalogued before readied for return to Iran.
“Even assuming that the tablets from Persepolis are legally owned by the Government of Iran, they do not fully belong just to it,” said Miriam Nemetz, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP, who is representing NIAC pro bono. “U.S. and international public policy dictate that cultural property should not be subject to collection for the satisfaction of judgment against a government that has loaned the property to a U.S. museum. The law recognizes the special status of cultural property and supports its preservation.”
NIAC believes these artifacts have substantial historical importance and value to both scholars and ordinary citizens seeking to understand Persian history and culture. Furthermore, they are part of the cultural heritage of Iranian Americans and a decision to sell them will do irreparable damage to the identity of the community – while leaving the true perpetrators of terrorism unscathed.
“This case does not represent a simple issue of monetary compensation,” said Goli Fassihian, NIAC spokeswoman. “These proceedings threaten to minimize the practice of cultural exchange and rob a whole community of Americans of priceless artifacts that represent its heritage.”
Persian artifacts, similar to artifacts from ancient cultures of present day Italy, Greece, Ethiopia, Egypt and China, provide a rich and deep understanding of history and offer invaluable insight and exchanges between people that live in modern day societies. These artifacts have been extremely important to a wide range of academics, including linguists, sociologists, historians, and classicists. Each tablet is a priceless treasure – in their totality they provide a window into what was once the largest empire in the world. Under the careful eye of archaeologists from the University of Chicago, these tablets are providing a first-hand account of daily life in the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago.
“If the plaintiffs are able to satisfy their default judgment against the government of Iran by seizing these priceless tablets, they would likely be sold to private collectors,” said Fassihian. “And, they would become unavailable for academic study or public display – possibly forever.
Not surprisingly, the risk of putting a price tag on 2,500 years of history has caused worldwide outrage. Societas Iranologica Europea, a group of scholars from Europe, is circulating a petition to President Obama asking him to protect the artifacts. Even the Department of Justice recognized the case crosses the line and opposed the seizure of the artifacts on three separate occasions.
Under U.S. law, President Obama has the power to issue an executive waiver to stop the seizure of foreign assets if that would further U.S. national security. Due to continuing political tensions between the U.S. and Iran, such a potentially dangerous assault on academic and cultural exchange could have broader implications in derailing the President’s diplomatic efforts to engage Iran.
“Despite the political challenges, we encourage the President to exercise his right to issue an executive waiver on this issue,” continued Dr. Parsi. “There is precedent for this action, and it is of particular importance given his efforts to solicit Iran’s collaboration in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
BACKGROUND ON PERSIAN ARTIFACTS LAWSUIT
A group of Americans injured by a Hamas bombing in Jerusalem in 1997 filed suit in a U.S. court to recover damages from the government of Iran on the grounds that it provided material support to Hamas. The court found that Iran’s support for Hamas brought Iran within the jurisdiction of the United States courts in accordance with a provision of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) that creates an exception to sovereign immunity for certain acts of “extrajudicial killing.”
The government of Iran boycotted the hearings, contending they were illegitimate. The court ruled against Iran and issued a $412 million default judgment to the plaintiffs. After being able to collect only a fraction of the judgment, the plaintiffs’ lawyers sued the University of Chicago – where 8,000 of the tablets are housed – to confiscate and auction off a large collection of the artifacts as payment for the judgment.
Currently, the University has been prevented from returning the artifacts to Iran due to the lawsuit.
For additional background on the Persian artifacts case, go to the NIAC website:
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NIAC is a Washington, DC-based 501 c(3) non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. NIAC is funded through donations from the Iranian-American community as well as grants from the Pluralism Fund, the Kenbe Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, among others. For more information about the organization, please visit niacouncil.org, email us at [email protected] or send a fax to (202) 386-6409.