Why it took 36 years to compensate Iran hostage victims

In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant Iranian students who took 53 people captive for 444 days. The ordeal left a long-lasting toll and no chance of Iranian compensation. Now Congress has changed that under the new massive spending legislation: Survivors or their families will get up to $4.4 million each. Gwen Ifill learns more from David Herszenhorn of The New York Times.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Iran hostage crisis was one of the defining moments of the 1970s, and it fractured a relationship between two nations that has never healed.

    Now, 36 years after it began, the former hostages are finally getting compensation. It was November 4, 1979. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant Iranian students. Eventually, 53 American hostages, many of them diplomats, were held. Some were paraded around, exposed to mock firing squads and beatings. Some were placed in solitary confinement. They were held 444 days, as the nation watched and waited. One major rescue attempt failed.

    Fifty-two were released on January 20, 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was being sworn in. One other hostage was released earlier because of illness.

    Their families celebrated. But the crisis helped end Jimmy Carter's presidency and led to a three-decade-plus rupture between Iran and the United States. And for many of the former captives, the ordeal left a lasting toll, including depression. But, until now, they have received no compensation for the ordeal. The massive spending legislation passed by Congress last week changes that, awarding each hostage $10,000 for each day of captivity.

    The settlement also provides the potential for compensation for victims of other incidents, including the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa and the 9/11 attacks.

    David Herszenhorn of The New York Times has been combing through this settlement and speaking with former hostages. He joins me now.

    David, how much money in total are we talking about here?

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN, The New York Times:

    Well, we actually don't know yet, because some of the money depends on court cases that are ongoing and judgments that have already handed down in the courts, where there may be awards. They haven't been paid yet.

    In fact, the Supreme Court will soon, next month, be hearing a case about this. But we're starting out with a pot of roughly $4 billion, a big chunk of which goes to 911 victims, $1 billion of which will go to the Iran hostages.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You mentioned the Supreme Court. Hasn't this very thing been litigated before? Has it gone as far as the Supreme Court and said, no, there will be no compensation?

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    Well, that's right.

    What we have now is basically a congressional judgment. The Iran hostages were denied at every turn, in large part because the agreement that secured their release known as the Algiers Accord barred them from seeking any compensation. So the courts repeatedly rejected any claims, citing this treaty effectively in 1981 that secured their release.

    What Congress has done is step in with legislative relief and said, Congress is basically giving to them the equivalent of a court judgment.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    And now, with this bigger group of victims, they each have their claim, what some victims may have been awarded in court, what the Iran hostages were awarded by the Congress, and a special master will dole out the money that exists.

    It starts with a big chunk of a settlement, really a landmark fine, penalty paid by the bank BNP Paribas, which had violated sanctions against Iran, Sudan, and Cuba.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So the pot of money that this is coming from, even though it's in a budget bill, is not really coming from the budget?

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    That's right.

    This was one of the political tools in crafting this settlement, in making this possible, that there was a ready and available pot of money that didn't have to come right out of taxpayers' pockets, so to speak.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And it also didn't come out of the Iranian government's pocket either.

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    And that's been some disappointment to some of the hostages, who really do feel that Iran ought to pay for what happened directly.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, sanctions had a role. Did the nuclear negotiations that we watched so closely have a role?

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    There's no question.

    As the nuclear accord was being developed, Congress certainly got much more involved, was paying much more attention to the idea that the relationship between the United States and Iran was going to begin to thaw, that sanctions might be eased. And there were many people, hostages included, who said, wait a minute, we're not comfortable with this relationship thawing when we haven't addressed the reason, one could say, it ruptured in the first place, or a big part of the reason, that defining moment, as they say, in the 1970s, where the embassy is overrun.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Why did this also include victims of other attacks? Why not just keep it specifically to Iran?

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    Well, that's a political question, but also one of fairness and equity I think in the minds of some of the lawmakers.

    Iran has been accused of sponsoring terror in many different locations on many different occasions. Victims and family members of victims of the two bombings in Beirut, 1983-'84, trucking bombing killed Marines and others, are included here. And there has been difficulty, even for the victims who have been able to pursue their claims in court.

    Winning a judgment has been possible for a number of victims, but getting paid has not been possible, because, of course, Iran is not coming up with money. There was one rare instance where Libya was looking to get back into the good graces of the rest of the world and was willing to pay compensation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But this is different.

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    That's right.

    So, here, they really had to come up with a solution where some of these folks would see some payback after, you know, losing loved ones or having been injured themselves, because the court decision was just that. It was just a number on paper, but there was no money behind it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You talked to some of these surviving hostages after — in the course of writing the story about the settlement. How have they reacted? It's been a long time.

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    They are exhausted, is one word. Certainly, there's a very big mix of emotions.

    Some are quite satisfied, they're quite relieved, quite grateful to Congress for not forgetting about them. Many of them felt forgotten really until the movie "Argo" came out. And "Argo" wasn't even about their case. It was about six folks who had escaped.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Ben Affleck movie that won the Oscar a couple of years ago.

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    That's right.

    They felt that that renewed attention. But, until then, they really had a sense that younger people, it's not something in their memory. This is something that was really forgotten. And, of course, they were also outraged by Benghazi, where yet again diplomatic personnel working for the United States government in dangerous places overseas were put at risk.

    So, there's a sense of closure for some of them. Many said it was too soon to see know exactly how they feel about it. But the comment that struck me the most, Barry Rosen, who was a press attache — he's a New Yorker — said, "I really don't want to talk about it." He said, "We have been through enough."

    And that seemed to be a sentiment I think all of them can agree on. They went through enough.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, nearly four decades later, it probably feels like more than enough.

    David Herszenhorn of The New York Times, thank you for this.

  • DAVID HERSZENHORN:

    You're welcome.

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