Iran Hostages Fail in Bid for Compensation

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:39pm

Not long after survivors of the Iranian hostage crisis marked the 25th anniversary of the start of their captivity, Congress has dealt a blow to their efforts to recover damages from Iran.

On Friday afternoon, House conferees charged with finalizing the details of the omnibus spending bill succeeded in killing a provision that would have granted the survivors compensation from frozen Iranian assets.

The survivors’ cause had plenty of champions, and they utilized a coordinated media strategy to pitch the argument that some of the Iranian assets frozen shortly after the country’s Islamic revolution of 1979 should be paid to the hostages as compensation for their ordeal, which lasted more than a year.

Their cause attracted support in both parties and both chambers of Congress. But Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and State Department officials led the effort to scuttle this latest attempt to change U.S. policy, arguing that it would violate the terms of the accord that freed the hostages, sources close to the decision said. Wolf’s office did not return several calls for comment.

“We presented a strong, reasonable case that this is the right and fair thing to do,” said Mark Schaefer, whose father, Tom, was a hostage. “If Members of Congress feel otherwise, I hope they will explain that to us.”

Hoping their third try at a legislative solution would be a charm — and to capitalize on the Nov. 4 anniversary of their capture — the former hostages recently hired the public relations firm Ketchum.

Earlier this month, Ketchum publicists mounted a print- and broadcast-advertising blitz, sending out more than a dozen survivors to give their accounts of the crisis and their ongoing struggle to win compensation. Stories featuring the survivors appeared in USA Today, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers, as well as on CNN Headline News and National Public Radio.

To shore up that appeal, lobbyists for The Washington Group, a subsidiary of Ketchum, and lawyers with Alexandria, Va.-based Lankford, Coffield & Reed were also on the case.

Lawyers for the group said they had hoped the provision would be seen by Wolf and the State Department as a compromise, since it secured payment for the ex-hostages without violating the agreement, which promises Iran legal immunity from the matter. Wolf had cited the international agreement in removing reimbursement measures from two previous spending bills.

But State Department officials said their concerns went beyond the issue of legal immunity, saying that they opposed any effort to pay the hostages from seized Iranian assets whatsoever.

Schaefer and Steve Kirtley, another former hostage, both live in Rep. Wolf’s Northern Virginia district. After the defeat of the first two efforts, Kirtley said he sent a letter to his Congressman, asking him to support the survivors’ latest attempt. He said he received a form-letter response.

Schaefer and Kirtley said that, after regrouping, they likely would continue to press their cause.

But if the timing was good for retrospectives on the Hostage crisis, the timing was not favorable on the international front.

The media push came amidst heightened diplomatic tensions with Iran. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters about new intelligence indicating that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. While the validity of that assertion later came under question, the sensitivity of the situation weighed heavily on the negotiations last week, participants said.

The former hostages first began their quest for compensation in 2000, when they filed a $33 billion class-action suit against Iran. Lawyers for Iran failed to show, and a U.S. District court judge awarded the survivors a default judgment.

But three days before a scheduled damages hearing, the State Department intervened. The department convinced the judge to toss out the case on the grounds the agreement with Iran that secured the hostages’ release also guaranteed the country immunity from lawsuits.

Lawyers for the former hostages argued for their compromise measure on the grounds that it does not involve lawsuits. Rather, it precludes the need for one by directly awarding each survivor a settlement — $1,000 for each day of captivity for a hostage, or $444,000 — and half that for family members.

State Department officials read the international agreement more broadly, maintaining that with or without a lawsuit, it bars paying hostages from seized Iranian assets.

Several hostages have said that watching their government intervene on behalf of their captors’ sponsors only added to the pain of captivity.

“It’s been a devastating frustration,” said Dave Roeder, a former military attaché and now the informal chairman of the survivors’ cause.

Roeder, for his part, insists the survivors’ crusade is not about the money, but the message.

“Twenty-five years is long enough to wait for justice,” he said.