Terry Anderson--the American journalist held hostage in Beirut between 1985 and 1991--is suing Iran. Paradoxically, Congress says Anderson may sue in a U.S., rather than international, court; but if he wins money, U.S. government lawyers will probably try stymie his efforts to collect. What is going on?
In 1996, Congress passed a law allowing victims to sue countries that sponsor terrorism. This statute flatly contradicts international law, which essentially says that one country cannot tell another what to do. But Congress passed it anyway and, in the U.S. at least, a new domestic law supersedes an old international law. (In Japan, on the other hand, domestic law does not supersede international law. And in the U.S., an old domestic law is sometimes superseded by a new international law.)
In other words, U.S. courts will award Anderson money if he can prove that Iran had a role in his kidnapping. Anderson was held by Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist group, but Iran financed Hezbollah. Anderson was released only after Iran told Hezbollah to release him. In fact, three of Anderson's fellow hostages and the family of an American woman killed by a bus bombing in Israel have already proved in court that Iran was responsible for their tragedies, and they've won a combined $315 million.
And how will the victims collect their award from an uncooperative Iran? Lawyers for the American woman's family once asked the court to seize the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C. That's off limits under international law--for obvious reasons--as are central bank reserves and World Bank deposits. And in this instance, at least, the U.S. courts observe international law. The only way to collect is to seize other forms of Iranian assets in the U.S. But the private lawyers representing the victims don't know whether or where Iran has $315 million worth of qualifying assets. To help these terrorism victims, Congress passed a law in 1998 requiring the State and Treasury Departments to help victims locate assets. But this law also permits the president to call off Treasury and State if doing so would be in the national interest. In the case of the $315 million, President Clinton has done just that. Moreover, he has taken the additional step of sending government lawyers to say that these victims should be denied even those Iranian assets they've independently identified.
The justification for siding with Iran over American victims? The White House isn't giving any specifics, but it may be worried that Iran will seize U.S. assets in Iran if the U.S. seizes Iranian assets here. (The principle of international law Congress ignored in 1996 is designed to prevent exactly this type of retaliatory cycle.) Or maybe the U.S. doesn't want the $315 million, plus whatever Anderson wins, to gum up the works of rapproachment with Iran. At any rate, Anderson is well aware of these obstacles. He told the Washington Post: "If we get anything, it will be years away. That's not the point. The point is to get Iran to acknowledge its guilt and to get the Clinton administration to engage in the process."
Explainer thanks Professor Jonathan Charney of Vanderbilt Law School, Brice Clagett of Covington & Burling in Washington D.C., and Professor Phillip Trimble of UCLA Law School.