More than 30 years since the Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran came home, a long legal and legislative battle may now be nearing an end.
WASHINGTON — It has been more than 30 years since the Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran came home, and they have tried in vain since then to win compensation for their suffering.
“Iran has never been held to account in any way whatsoever for having violated every tenet of international law for all of those 444 days,” said Kevin Hermening, a former Marine embassy guard who at age 20 was the youngest hostage taken in 1979.
But a long legal and legislative battle may now be nearing an end. A Senate committee last week endorsed a remedy that could pay each of the surviving hostages $6,750 for every day they were held, or roughly $3 million each.
The money would not come from the Iranian government, which has proved an impossible legal target. Instead, it could come from fines and penalties paid by companies that did business illegally with Iran in violation of sanctions against that country.
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“This is a major breakthrough,” attorney Tom Lankford said of a proposal that has been negotiated with the U.S. State Department. “We’ve got many people who are elderly and ailing and very, very ill, and we’re hopeful something is done very, very promptly.”
There were 53 Americans held hostage after the Iranian revolution (52 were held for 444 days and one was released earlier). Thirty-eight are still alive. Of the 26 spouses of hostages, 19 are still alive.
After beatings, mock executions and prolonged imprisonment in Tehran, many of the hostages and their families had trouble resuming normal lives.
“My colleagues endured a lot of terrible physical and psychological abuse,” said Hermening, an investment adviser, financial planner and onetime candidate for office who lives in Mosinee, Wis. “Bad things have happened as a result of those days of captivity.”
The legal travails of American victims of terrorism have played out in a legal and diplomatic thicket in recent decades. Years ago, Congress passed a law making it possible for victims of state-sponsored terrorism to sue those states for damages. Many victims have won in court, though not all of them have received compensation. Figuring out where to go for the money has been complicated. The process has often been painful and frustrating, with many feeling as if their own government has been an obstacle or adversary.
The Iran hostages have always faced a unique barrier: the U.S. agreement with Iran that led to the captives’ 1981 release, known as the Algiers Accords, prohibits the former hostages from seeking damages from Iran. Because of that, they have lost their court battles, as administrations under different presidents have stood by the agreement.
The latest legislative effort is not everything the former hostages were hoping for. For example, the original bill sponsored by Senate Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called for damages of more than $4 million per hostage, based on a formula ($10,000 per day of captivity) that has been recognized by courts. That was reduced to about $3 million after negotiations with the State Department (with spouses receiving $600,000).
But Isakson welcomed the unanimous bipartisan backing his bill got in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “The Iran hostages sacrificed mightily for our country,” he said.
The top Democrat on the committee, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, said: “It’s been a long road. I think we’re almost there.”
The push for compensation is coming to a head just as the United States is trying to finalize a nuclear agreement with Iran. Isakson tried unsuccessfully to attach his bill to recently passed legislation on the Iran nuclear deal.
“It’s almost incomprehensible to me we could have a new relationship of any type with Iran and not take care of this issue,” Lankford said.
Hermening, a Republican candidate for Congress in 1986 and 1988, is a vocal skeptic of the Iran nuclear talks, deriding Iran as an untrustworthy partner. His views on Iran have been invoked by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a critic of the talks and a possible presidential candidate. Hermening has known Walker for almost 30 years dating back to his unsuccessful campaigns for Congress and the Legislature.
“The Iranians, in every case, have been anything but honest brokers,” Hermening said.
Hermening describes himself as one of the more fortunate — or less unfortunate — hostages.
“I was only 20 when we were captured. I had my 21st birthday in captivity. The Marines did a great job helping me reintegrate back into American society. Many (others) became recluses. I can guarantee that many of the people who I was held captive with had much worse physical and psychological experiences than I did.
“The Iran hostage situation is part of my life, but it doesn’t define entirely who I am,” he said. “Some of the guys who were there have never gotten past it.”