On the 35th anniversary of the release of U.S. hostages from Iran, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson and members of Congress joined several former captives Wednesday to call for the quick disbursal of funds to finally compensate the hostages and their families.
After the Iranian Revolution toppled the regime of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran in 1979, militant Iranian students overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4 and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
The siege would cripple the presidency of Jimmy Carter, force a failed rescue attempt in April 1980 that left eight U.S. military personnel dead and sever diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran for more than three decades.
Although the hostages were released minutes after President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the negotiated agreement to end the crisis barred them from seeking legal compensation from Iran for their treatment. The so-called “Algiers Accords” left the hostages and their families as the nation’s only victims of state-sponsored terrorism to be denied the right to pursue legal justice.
But thanks to congressional efforts led by Isakson, a Republican, the omnibus spending bill of 2015 contained a provision that steers $1 billion to the Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.
444 The number of days the hostages were held in Iran
$4.4 million The estimated amount for each hostage, or about $10,000 for each day in captivity
Isakson’s provision would provide the hostages about $4.4 million each, or roughly $10,000 for each day of their captivity. Qualified family members will receive $600,000 lump sum payments.
The money is expected to be disbursed later this year after a special master is appointed to oversee its release.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who worked with Isakson to secure the funding, called for prompt action to get the money to the families.
“We need to make sure that these funds are available as soon as possible, because they deserve it and some of them truly need it,” Blumenthal said Wednesday during a telephone news briefing with members of Congress and several former hostages.
Fourteen of the former hostages are older than 78 and many are ill and ailing, said Tom Lankford, the attorney for the hostages. Fifteen hostages, eight of their spouses and two of their children have died since the crisis was resolved, Lankford said on the call.
Instead of U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for the restitution fund, the money comes from a judgment against the French bank BNP Paribas, which had illegally handled financial transactions for Iranian interests that were under economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government.
Securing the funding without U.S. taxpayer money proved a tough political climb because of the Algiers Accords. But the Paribas judgment offered a “one-time opportunity,” Isakson said.
“Once the Paribas money became accessible, and (the Department of Justice) had access to it and we had statutory authority in Congress to pass the deal that we did in the omnibus, and the support of the administration, things all came together,” Isakson said on the call.
“Iran has never been a very trustworthy partner to negotiate with or deal with, and when you have an opportunity to strike, if you don’t do it when the iron’s hot, you’re probably never going to be successful,” he said. “So we were fortunate to have a good team of legislators and a good opportunity.”
The fact that you took this on on our behalf and stayed on it for so many years – I don’t even know how to thank you.
Joe Hall of Lenox, Georgia, 66, a former hostage
Joe Hall of Lenox, Georgia, a 66-year-old former hostage who worked as a U.S. defense attaché in Iran, was handcuffed and blindfolded, repeatedly beaten, interrogated and denied food while he was held. He praised Isakson and members of Congress for their efforts.
“The fact that you took this on on our behalf and stayed on it for so many years – I don’t even know how to thank you,” Hall said during the call.
Although Hall said he didn’t need the money, “I also have a bunch of grandkids and nieces and nephews that may not get to go to college unless somebody helps them. So there’s that,” he said. “I don’t know that money is the balm for everything that burns us, but short of an apology from Iran, this is pretty special.”
But Mike Kennedy, a former economic and commercial officer who endured mock firing squads and still bears the scars from beatings by his captors with rubber hoses, said the money would not provide complete closure.
“This doesn’t end it, because we’re going to continue to have problems,” Kennedy said. “We can’t put together broken marriages. We can’t fix the relationships between parents and estranged children.”
Although the recent nuclear accord with Iran and last week’s release of U.S. prisoners held there dovetailed with Wednesday’s anniversary, the events were not related, Isakson said.