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Obama and the Persian Treasures in Chicago

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At a time when the American people finally have a President who understands diplomacy doesn't mean putting on a cowboy hat and talking like a gunslinger, a most unlikely case in a Chicago courtroom has the potential to derail President Obama's efforts to engage Iran.

Obama had hardly been President twenty minutes before he declared the United States would seek a new way forward with the Muslim world, based on "mutual respect." The President was making a clear overture to Iran, whose proud people have a keen sense of being wronged by the United States. The President has continued making overtures, such as when he declared "Persian civilization is a great civilization" on al-Hurrah.

At a sensitive moment like this, it's probably not a good idea to seize and auction off some of the most powerful symbols of Persian civilization. Yet, unless a Chicago appeals court overturns a lower court decision, that's exactly what's going to happen.

At the heart of this case are nearly 12,000 cuneiform tablets that tell the story of what was once the world's largest empire. University of Chicago archaeologists have in their custody the Persian tablets, which provide a first-hand account of daily life in the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago. For archeologists like Matt Stolper, Professor of Assyriology at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, each tablet is a priceless treasure--a small window into Persepolis, the capitol of ancient Persia.

These tablets are unique because they provide a first-hand account of daily life in the Persian Empire while almost everything else we - and the Iranians - know of this passage of history comes Roman, Greek, Arab, or Biblical accounts.

Yet for several lawyers, the invaluable pieces of Persian and world heritage are worth nothing more than what they could fetch in a fire sale. The lawyers represent victims of terrorist attacks in Israel, who have sued the government of Iran for its material support of Hamas and Hezbollah. The Chicago federal court issued a $412 million default judgment against Iran, which refused to recognize the court's jurisdiction. When the plaintiffs were only able to collect a small portion of the money, their lawyer sued the University of Chicago, to seize and auction off the priceless artifacts.

Confiscating these Iranian artifacts would create a dangerous precedent and open the United States up to retaliation in foreign courts. Iranians could seek retribution for the U.S.S. Vincennes accident, for America's support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, for the 1953 coup to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, or any number of other historical events.

Needless to say, this sort of tit-for-tat isn't exactly a recipe for increasing confidence and productive talks - requisites for any successful diplomacy. And not surprisingly, both the academic community and the Iranian-American community is up in arms over the issue. The National Iranian American Council has been mobilizing Iranian Americans to protect the artifacts.

Under the law, President Obama has the power to issue an executive waiver to stop the seizure of foreign assets if that would further US national security. Considering the importance of the President's efforts to reduce tensions with Iran and solicit its collaboration in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dire consequences of failure, President Obama should do exactly that. It's not the easiest decision politically, but no one ever said overcoming 30 years of enmity would be easy.