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Isakson bill seeks money for 1979 Iran hostages

Charles Scott was hung by his wrists and beaten for three days straight. His Iranian captors struck the heels of his feet with steel cables. He spent most of his 444 days as a hostage in solitary confinement.

But the torture did not cause Scott’s post-traumatic stress, the Jonesboro resident said. It came instead from how his own government let Iran get away with it and has blocked the hostages from seeking recompense since their 1981 release.

A bill introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, would allow the hostages and their families substantial compensation, and fresh public interest in the issue from the Oscar-winning film “Argo” gives the bill’s backers confidence that they can push it through.

The Algiers Accords, which President Jimmy Carter agreed to in order to get the hostages out, do not allow the hostages to sue Iran directly, and the State Department has fought in court to keep it that way. Isakson’s bill — which has bipartisan support in both chambers — would allow the families of the 52 hostages to draw $4.4 million each from fines against companies that violate U.S. sanctions to do business with Iran.

“It would have been much better if it would have been pure Iranian assets that were held here, but that was not possible,” Scott said. “If it’s a remedy that brings compensation to us, it’s great. We can finally have some sort of closure.”

The panic inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when a mob of Iranians stormed it on Nov. 4, 1979, as depicted in “Argo,” was a little “Hollywooded up” as Scott put it. (“Argo” was about a CIA operation to extricate six Americans who took refuge at the Canadian Embassy.) U.S. Embassy personnel knew well how chaotic the nation was after its Islamic Revolution, and the anti-American sentiment that came from Carter allowing the deposed shah to get medical treatment in the U.S. In fact, embassy staff had been taken hostage briefly on Feb. 14, a day wryly known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Open House.”

Scott was an Army colonel, the Department of Defense liaison to the Iranian government. Bill Daugherty of Savannah was a CIA operative who had been trying mostly in vain to decipher the decision-making apparatus inside the new government. They were among the military personnel targeted for the harshest treatment, though they were some of the best-equipped to handle it.

“All of us pretty much had experience in Vietnam and were used to dealing with stress on an almost daily basis,” Daugherty said.

This turned out to be no temporary takeover, and as negotiations dragged on and a rescue mission failed, back home a nation was mesmerized. Nightly reports about the hostages on ABC News were the genesis for the show “Nightline.”

Iran finally released the 52 hostages on the day of President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and they were welcomed home as heroes.

But by not seizing Iranian assets or retaliating more strongly, Scott said, the U.S. government showed that terrorism can work.

“The fact that we never did anything against Iran, it was almost like they were untouchable, and that’s been my major frustration,” Scott said. “I don’t worry too much about torture.”

Scott retired from the Army as soon as he got back to the States and he became a professional speaker. Daugherty remained in the CIA until 1996 and then had a second career as a college professor.

Not all fared as well. Phil Ward “had never really returned from Iran” when he committed suicide last year, said Tom Lankford, who has been the lead attorney for the hostages since 2000. Of the 52 hostages, 40 are still alive.

Five years after their release, the U.S. government paid the hostages $22,000 each — or about $50 per day of captivity. There have been several efforts in Congress and in the courts to get more and to punish Iran, but all have fallen short, and the Algiers Accords have held up.

Isakson said tapping into the sanctions money is the best available route, and though the bill did not advance in the last Congress, he is “very bullish” about its chances this time. Isakson said former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and new Secretary of State John Kerry supported the effort last year, but they were not able to get it attached to a larger measure and ran out of time.

Lankford said “Argo” has helped raise the hostages’ profile on Capitol Hill, and the bill is an effort to make sure Iran does not get “the last word.” He could only shake his head at the news last week that Iran is threatening to sue because of the country’s portrayal in “Argo.”

“What chutzpah,” Lankford said.

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