February 16, 2012, Washington, D.C - Last week, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) contacted Senator Robert Menendez regarding his amendment to the Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, and its potential impact on the University of Chicago’s collection of Persian Artifacts.
In the 1930s and 1960s, the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute collaborated with Iran in excavating ancient clay tablets from the Persepolis and Chogha Mish sites and shipped them to Chicago for reconstruction and long-term research. The Persepolis Fortification Texts are 2,500 year-old artifacts that consist of ancient Persian seal impressions and cuneiform writings that provide a unique first-hand account of life in the Persian Empire under Darius the Great. Approximately 20,000 pieces remain on loan to the Oriental Institute for additional research. The Chogha Mish artifacts cover a chronological span from the Neolithic to the Proto-Literate period and provide vital information on cultural developments during that period in Iran’s southwest Khuzistan Province.
In a lawsuit pending before a United States federal court, plaintiffs are seeking to obtain custody over the historical artifacts housed at the University of Chicago as compensation for injuries sustained during a 1997 terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. The lawsuit serves as the intersection of victims’ rights, international law, state ownership of property, cultural heritage and diplomatic matters.
As a matter of principle, PAAIA condemns all acts of violence that result in the loss of life and all acts of intimidation, coercion and violence that are intended to instill fear in the population at large. While we are deeply sympathetic to victims of terrorism and are fully supportive of their right to redress, we agree with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Justice, and universities and museums that cultural property should not be used to satisfy commercial claims. The Persian Artifacts at the University of Chicago have a unique historical and cultural value and have never been involved in commercial activity.
The Menendez-Brown amendment was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs earlier this month. While the amendment’s clear intent is to help enforce judgments against Iran for family members and surviving victims of the 1983 Beirut bombings using frozen Iranian assets being held in Citibank, PAAIA is concerned about the potential unintended consequences the amendment may have in the ongoing litigation associated with the Persepolis and Chogha Mish Artifacts.
PAAIA has been in contact with the University of Chicago regarding this matter. They have informed us that, in their opinion, the amendment, as written, has the potential to strip cultural property of their legal protections as noncommercial items under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) by declaring all Iranian property in the U.S. as commercial property.
Accordingly, PAAIA has been in contact with Senator Menendez regarding the University of Chicago’s concerns. Senator Menendez does not believe that his amendment would impact the case involving the Persian Artifacts as it is limited to defining property in certain securities only. However, at the urging of PAAIA, his office has met with officials from the University of Chicago to discuss their concerns and are carefully reviewing the language to discern whether the amendment would have any unintended consequences.
In a letter to the Senator Menendez, PAAIA strongly urged him to work with the University of Chicago to ensure that cultural property is clearly defined and protected from lawsuits in his amendment, while at the same time ensuring that those who are victimized by the Iranian government receive their just compensation.
As a son of immigrants, Menendez is empathetic to the immigrant experience of Iranian Americans as well as other communities and has worked with PAAIA in the past to promote Iranian culture and heritage. He is the chief sponsor of Senate Resolution 463, which recognizes the cultural and historical significance of Nowruz and expresses appreciation to Iranian Americans for their contributions to society. The resolution passed the U.S. Senate in March of 2010.
PAAIA looks forward to continuing its work with the University of Chicago and Senator Menendez on this matter and will report on developments as they become available.