Looting Iran


It took years of painful sanctions and numerous bombing campaigns before looters swept in to steal Iraq’s archaeological treasures. It seems that in the case of Iran, the theft may precede sanctions and war.

The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute is currently in possession of ancient Iranian artifacts including a collection of 2,500-year-old tablets acquired on loan in 1937 which chronicle the daily workings of the Persian Empire. The University is being sued to turn over the artifacts as restitution to victims of a 1997 bombing in Israel. Representing five Americans injured in that attack, David J. Strachman successfully sued the Iranian government for $71.5 million dollars on the grounds that Iran is responsible as a state sponsor of terrorism. In order to recover this sum from a non-responsive Iranian government who has thus far declined to appear in the U.S. courts or to acknowledge their judgments, Strachman has demanded that the University and several museums auction their collection of ancient artifacts and turn over the funds to him and his clients. Last week, he came one step closer to achieving his goal when a federal judge rejected one of the University’s main defense arguments.

In 2004, scholars at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute began taking significant steps towards renewing their relationship to their counterparts in Iran. For the first time since close cooperation between Iran and the University ended in 1979, the Institute returned a number of the ancient tablets to the Iranian Cultural Organization as a “good faith” gesture made in the hope of negotiating agreements for new excavations and joint training and publication programs. If Strachman succeeds in forcing the sale of the remaining artifacts, the reconciliation between the University and Iran will not be the only relationship that will be undermined.

Iranians from a range of backgrounds, be they staunch supporters or sworn enemies of their current government, are increasingly becoming aware of the double standards, misrepresentations, and unjust maneuverings around domestic and international laws that seem to be at play when it comes to Iran. The backlash against the propaganda war against Iran and Iranians can be found in events both trivial and deadly serious. Fans of the Iranian National Soccer team were infuriated, for example, when American sportscasters used the occasion of Iran’s opening match against Mexico to rehash the Western media’s favorite clichés about President Ahmadinejhad and his controversial statements regarding Israel and the Holocaust. The games of no other national teams have been inappropriately used as a political forum, and this fact did not escape Iranian viewers, whose bitterness at an earlier than expected exit from the World Cup was further agitated by unsavory sports coverage.

While the wrangling over Iran’s nuclear program may not inflame as many passions as did the World Cup, it too has become yet another arena wherein Iran and Iranians are treated according to a seemingly different set of standards than that which is applied to the rest of the world. Iran is a voluntary signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the terms of which guarantee its right to completing Uranium enrichment cycles on its own soil for the purposes of developing a civilian nuclear program. As the so-called “international community” deploys various carrots and sticks in attempts to persuade Iran not to exercise this right, Iran’s nuclear armed and non-NPT signing neighbors in the region are not only exempt from being subject to inspections of their nuclear facilities, but are variously rewarded with praise and economic aid. The continuing application of this double-standard is irksome and counter-productive: it will force the majority of Iranians who support a civilian nuclear program to further dig in their heels, and it will lead those who oppose nuclear technology to distrust the intentions of administrations who claim to act for the good of the Iranian people.

In the end, if Iranians are divided over the nuclear issue, there is at least one subject around which they can fanatically converge, even more so than they do with their National Soccer Team, and that is Iran’s ancient cultural and historical heritage. What the University of Chicago has in its possession is part and parcel of a heritage that belongs to the Iranian people and cannot be identified as the property of any ruling government. To force their sale on the dubious grounds that Strachman has offered and the U.S. courts have accepted is a manipulation of justice and a nail in the coffin of reconciliation between Iran and the United States.

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Niki Akhavan is an anti-war activist and a PhD candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she is completing a PhD thesis on the relationship between new media technologies and contemporary Iranian cultural politics. She is a board member of the recently formed “Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran” (http://www.campaigniran.org/casmii/).

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