Terry Reed, another attorney for the former hostages, calls his clients “the only victims of Iran’s hostage-taking and terrorism that have been left behind.” Others, who are not bound by the Algiers Accords, have gone to court and won judgments against Iran. They include former journalist Terry Anderson, held for seven years by the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, who collected some $26 million taken from frozen Iranian assets; victims of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, whose attorneys are trying to seize Iranian assets frozen in U.S. institutions to collect tens of millions of dollars in court awards; and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, who last year won what will likely turn out to be a largely symbolic $6 billion award against Iran, al-Qaida, and the Taliban.
The disturbing details of the hostages’ lives during and after captivity have not won the day against successive presidential administrations determined to uphold an international deal even though it was necessitated by a host government that failed to protect a U.S. Embassy and allowed militants to hold American hostages for month after month—and even though it was signed almost literally at the point of a gun, with Tehran threatening “serious consequences” for the hostages if Washington did not release billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets.
“You dreamt, you cried, you prayed for the opportunity of a second chance.”—Rocky Sickmann, former hostage and Marine
Brokered by the government of Algeria, the Algiers Accords were hailed as the catalyst that ended the protracted crisis. The executive agreement allowed for commercial claims against Iran to be paid out of Iranian assets frozen when the Americans were taken, but it barred any attempt by the freed hostages to bring suit against Iran in a U.S. court. Since Iran already enjoyed sovereign immunity against such claims, the State Department did not see that as a concession at the time. In addition, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded in a Nov. 13, 1980, memo that Congress would have the power to “constitutionally override” the Algiers Accords and reinstate the former hostages’ right to sue Iran for damages.
In January 1984, three years after the hostages were released, the State Department added Iran to its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Twelve years later, Congress passed the Antiterrorism Act, removing the sovereign immunity of countries on the list and intending to make the law retroactive so the former hostages could sue Iran. They and their families did just that in 2000 and won a default liability ruling the next year in federal court after Iran failed to mount a defense.
The State Department, worried about the implications of violating an international deal signed by a president, argued that the hostages’ case should be dismissed. Congress tried again to help in 2002, writing into a conference report that the former hostages had a valid claim against Iran under the 1996 act. But U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, in a decision later upheld by an Appeals Court, dismissed the claim. Congress did not specifically invalidate the Algiers Accords, he said, so he had no choice.
“Were this Court empowered to judge by its sense of justice, the heart-breaking accounts of the emotional and physical toll of those 444 days on plaintiffs would be more than sufficient justification for granting all the relief that they request,” Sullivan wrote. “However, this Court is bound to apply the law that Congress has created, according to the rules of interpretation that the Supreme Court has determined. There are two branches of government that are empowered to abrogate and rescind the Algiers Accords, and the judiciary is not one of them.”
Congress tried yet again in 2008, inserting a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act allowing Americans to sue countries that sponsor terrorism. It specifically mentioned the former Iran hostages, so they filed a lawsuit citing that section of the 2008 law. But the Obama administration’s Justice Department urged dismissal of the case. In September 2010, Sullivan again acknowledged the former hostages’ “tremendous suffering” but again ruled against them. Congress had failed to “expressly” nullify the Algiers Accords or create an unambiguous cause of action against Iran for the 1979 hostage-taking, he said. Last year, the Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Rather than hold out for Congress to repeal the Algiers Accords outright, which would trigger years of legal activity with no guaranteed outcome, the former hostages, their advocates, and their Hill allies have settled on a different course: to seek a surcharge on fines and penalties paid by companies that do business with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. The money would be put into a compensation fund for the ex-hostages. Mike Smith, their lobbyist, says Congress will pass such a plan overwhelmingly if it comes to a vote, as he expects it will this year. If the State Department has an alternate plan, he adds, “we’re flexible, as long as it brings relatively speedy relief to the former hostages.”