There were many horrendous moments for the American hostages held by Iranians for 444 days at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. One of the worst occurred when Iranian captors showed a hostage a photo of the school bus that took his son to and from school. If the hostage didn’t cooperate, his son’s fingers would be chopped off and sent, one a day, to his wife.
On January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan became president and Jimmy Carter departed, the crisis lifted and 52 Americans came home. And a few other good things happened. U.S. banks with investments in Iran were reimbursed, 100 cents on the dollar. Through an international tribunal, American corporations were compensated for their losses.
But the hostages were left out. It was as if they’d been quickly forgotten, blotted from national memory. And the Algiers Accords—the U.S.-Iranian agreement under which the hostages were released—offered no relief. That pact, negotiated by the Carter administration, barred the former hostages from suing Iran for compensation.
When they sought help in federal court, they were blocked. The State Department under presidents from Reagan to George W. Bush intervened time and again, but not in their favor. The Algiers Accords, which Congress never ratified, were upheld.
Last December, it appeared justice might be served. Funds for hostage compensation were put in the U.S. budget. The money would come from fines collected from violators of sanctions against Iran—money not covered by the Algiers Accords. But that compensation was yanked from the budget at the last minute.
Now, with the Obama administration and Iran on the verge of a deal aiming to curb the Iranian nuclear program, Congress may act. A bill introduced by Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) would provide compensation. How much? In recent years, a consensus among federal judges has been reached on the amount a hostage, if injured, should receive. Each of the 39 hostages still living—all of whom endured physical or mental injury—would get $10,000 for each day in captivity, and spouses and children would get half that figure.
“As we debate our foreign policy toward Iran, it seems more appropriate than ever that we compensate the Foreign Service personnel who . . . were forced to endure unimaginable fear, despair, and torture for 444 days,” Isakson said in a statement. His bill would “demonstrate our support for the brave men and women who represent our country abroad.”
But the bill’s fate is uncertain. Isakson plans to attach it to legislation requiring Obama to submit the nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for a vote. And President Obama has vowed to veto any measure granting Congress an up or down vote on the pact with Iran.
He could act on his own by issuing an executive order to pay the hostages and their families—a total of 151 people—with money from sanctions fines. Or with money from the U.S. Treasury, for that matter. But he’s not considering it.
What the White House and the State Department have promised to do is refrain from impeding Isakson’s bill. Administration officials spoke to former hostages in a conference call when Iran tried to install Hamid Abutalebi as ambassador to the United Nations. The hostages opposed Abutalebi because of his role in their captivity. A year ago, he was denied a visa to enter the United States and take his seat as U.N. ambassador.
On the compensation issue, the Iranians are no help. They’re unrepentant. They’ve never apologized for their actions in attacking and then persecuting Americans—quite the contrary. They still celebrate the anniversary of the day the Tehran embassy was invaded and the hostages imprisoned, November 4, 1979.
Senior Iranian diplomat Ali Kohorram talked about those celebrations last November. “From the view of the Americans, this is an old wound,” he told an Iranian newspaper. Americans just “cannot ignore” the matter. “We have to take into consideration the view from outside” Iran. “Sooner or later, we will have to be forced to do this. If we want to think about working with international society, this has to be on the agenda.” But so far, it’s not.
For the hostages, the compensation package—the money—is secondary to recognition of the sacrifice they made and the ordeal they endured. “The hostages and their families—who arguably suffered more than any other group—have yet to receive their full measure of justice,” said Tom Lankford, their lawyer.