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Supreme Court Takes Up Dispute Over Iran Antiquities in Terror Case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to take up a long running legal battle over a claim by victims of terrorism to Iranian antiquities held in a Chicago museum.

Nine U.S. citizens sued Iran after a 1997 suicide bombing in Israel. The Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, took responsibility for the attack, which killed five Israelis and injured others, including Americans who were in Ben Yehuda as tourists. Iran was sued as a sponsor of Hamas.

Image: A police officer stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court
A police officer stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2017 in Washington. Eric Thayer / Getty Images

Although foreign countries are generally immune from U.S. lawsuits, the law makes exceptions for acts of terrorism. A federal judge eventually awarded the Americans $71.5 million. But because Iran has few assets frozen in the US — the usual source for satisfying such court judgments — lawyers for the Americans had to come up with other assets to seize.

The Supreme Court case involved thousands of small clay tablets from Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia, on long-term loan by Iran to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute for study. The tablets contain some of the oldest known human writing, records of daily transactions from 2,500 years ago.

In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that the antiquities could not be used to help satisfy the court judgment, because Iran was not using them for commercial purposes.

The federal government has generally sided with Iran during the years of litigation. "Although the United States sympathizes with petitioners and other victims of terrorism, the seizure of a foreign sovereign's property via attachment or execution can affect the United States' foreign relations," said Jeffrey Wall, the Trump administration's acting solicitor general.