The Suffering of Iran’s Victims will EndureCommentary by David Grantham
October 09, 2015
The ink is not even dry on Obama’s ill-conceived executive agreement with Iran and already observers have found potentially unlawful stipulations baked into the agreement. A predictable development, to be sure, but it seems last minute. The administration has already ignored other judicial pronouncements through the course of negotiations without much fanfare. As the debate now inevitably plunges into squabbles over illegalities, it is time to address the outstanding judgment still haunting grieving victims of Iran’s terrorism.
The Islamic Republic still owes billions in settlements to its American victims and the White House refused to demand payment as part of the deal. Over the last twenty years, U.S. federal courts have leveled nearly 100 judgments against the Iranian government for complicity in numerous attacks against the United States. A federal court awarded plaintiffs approximately $9 billion in damages in connection to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. service members. In another, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled that Iran owed $320 million in settlements for orchestrating the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy, which killed 17 Americans. According to experts, Iran owes around $66 billion to American victims of its terror policies. Unsurprisingly, those judgments remain unpaid. Surprisingly, the Obama administration refused to require payment as a part of the nuclear agreement.
The administration maintained those legal claims were unrelated to the negotiations. Nonsense. Those judgments were not based on some fuzzy, unenforceable international law outside the scope of U.S. authority. They concerned U.S. territories and American citizens, ending in judgments both conceived and executed in U.S. federal courts. Moreover, the deal itself revolved around reclaiming financial assets. According to updated estimates, Iran will now receive upwards of $150 billion from previously frozen accounts. The money owed to Iran’s victims amounts to less than half of that total. The math made for an easy solution, it would seem. Framers of the agreement often suggested that unfrozen assets will do little for terrorist operations since it represents an insignificant sum within the greater defense budget of the Islamic Republic. Let’s borrow that logic. Families victimized by Iran stand to receive significantly less than the aforementioned insignificant sum. Therefore, the $66 billion represented a small atonement; one Iran would not have missed.
In all of this, the Obama administration made a serious political miscalculation. In 2008, the Bush administration forced Muammar Gaddafi to finally cough up $1.5 billion to fulfill lawsuits against his government for its role in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people and the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco, which killed two American soldiers. The move received applause even from some Democrats, despite the administration’s enormous unpopularity within the party. Obama could have achieved something similar. Greater still, forcing Iran to pay would have sent a signal to other state-sponsors of terror that the U.S. government would respond to attacks outside the realm of conventional war. Why fear our bombs when we are clearing out your bank accounts? This point would have won favor with some Republicans who perceive a weak president and those Democrats fearful of another ground war but insistent on tougher demands.
The political logic is bewildering and the administration’s detachment, maddening. Anne Dammarell, a survivor of the 1983 U.S. embassy bombing and a plaintiff in the related case, reminded us that Congress actually established escrow accounts to hold money exchanged between Iranian-controlled oil firms and western businesses. Billions sat undisturbed for years, well within the reach of the U.S. officials. Instead, that money will be flowing into Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran’s victims are left to haggle in court over confiscated proceeds from Iranian real estate and bank accounts in New York City in an effort to recoup even a fraction of what they are owed. A handful of victims have sued the U.S. government to stop the release of funds as a matter of last resort.
Characterizing those judgments as separate from the agreement was a condition of the administration’s own making. As a reminder, the White House also called innocent American prisoners languishing in Iranian prisons an unrelated matter, despite including human capital as part of negotiations with Cuba and the Taliban. Even the possibility of an extralegal issue confirms that in the world of the current U.S. dealings, Iran has somehow achieved favored-nation status.
As reviewers begin exposing the agreement to the light of day, the nuclear deal is beginning to look as promising as finding ocean side property in South Dakota. And this latest development now only heaps more disrepute on the administration’s already unsettling pattern of negotiation. Indeed, as we reflect on other ill-conceived compromises, such as the Bergdahl-swap, the administration should be reminded that Iran’s victims actually served with distinction.