Iran hostage crisis was a distant memory for many until the film 'Argo' brought it all back
34 years ago, 52 Americans were held and tortured by Iranians for 14 months
Ex-hostage: "I had a gun to my head, I was in solitary for nine months"
Bipartisan legislation aims to get compensation for former hostages
It won an Academy Award, made people forget “Gigli” when they think Ben Affleck, and now the movie “Argo” may even pull off another feat – help move legislation through Congress.
The frustrated Foreign Service officer on the phone as the U.S. embassy in Iran was under assault at the beginning of “Argo” was in real life John Limbert.
“That part of it was quite real. I mean, very much speeded-up but quite real,” Limbert said from his home in suburban Washington.
The keepsakes and collages on the walls of Limbert’s study constantly remind him of his harrowing 444 days as a hostage in Iran 34 years ago.
Not that he would ever forget.
But for most people in America, the Iran hostage crisis was a distant memory until “Argo” brought it all back.
Unlike the six Americans who hid with the Canadian ambassador who were the focus of “Argo,” Limbert was one of the 52 Americans held – and tortured – by Iranians for 14 months.
“I had a gun to my head, I was in solitary for nine months,” recalled Limbert, who said that as a political officer at the embassy, he was not beaten and physically tortured as much as CIA officers were.
“Ten minutes before this happened, I was thinking about what’s going to happen in Iran, what’s going to happen to the left, what’s going to happen to the right, what’s going to happen with the former Shah, what’s going to happen with U.S. relations. All the things that, sort of, all the inside the Beltway stuff that we think about.
“Ten minutes later, all that was gone,” he continued. “That didn’t matter at all, and I thought about only one thing…Get me out of here. How am I going to get out? How am I going to get out of here? And frankly, I didn’t care what it took.”
He was subjected to the mock executions depicted in “Argo.”
“They came in at 2 in the morning with, I think, masks and guns, pulled us out together to a place, lined us up against the wall, started chambering rounds into their guns, yelling orders. We didn’t know what was going to happen… I thought we were gone,” Limbert said.
When Limbert and his fellow hostages were finally freed on January 20, 1981, they learned the U.S. government gave up something big in return: As part of the Algiers Accords agreed to a day earlier, the hostages were barred from suing Iran in U.S. court to seek compensation for their ordeal.
Decades of court challenges have gone nowhere and appeals to administrations in both parties have failed. The Obama administration has said it stands by the promise in the Algiers Accords not to sue Iran.
Now, Sen.Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, is pushing legislation to get the former hostages financial reward in a different way. He wants to put a surcharge on fines against companies that violate sanctions against Iran and use that money to create a compensation fund.
Isakson says the popularity of “Argo’ is helping.
“A lot of people have seen it. They understand the abject horror that these people went through. I think most everybody will identify with the crisis and the suffering these people went through, and hopefully it will give us the impetus and the momentum to see to it that all these many years they’re actually compensated for their treatment,” Isakson said.
His bill would allow hostages to get $10,000 a day for each day of captivity, which comes to $4.4 million total for each hostage.
Isakson argues that finally compensating the hostages will send a message to Iran and to U.S. personnel around the world, especially after four were killed at the U.S. consulate in Libya.
“It just magnified that our diplomats overseas in harm’s way day in and day out are in constant danger,” Isakson said about the Benghazi attack. “They need to also know that if they get violated, if they are captured, if they are tortured, that we’ll have their back – that America will stand strong for them.”
After Limbert was freed, he returned to the foreign service for the rest of his career. He knew Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was one of the four killed in Benghazi.
“He was one of our best. What a tragic loss, from him and the others who were there. They need protection. There has to be protection, and also there has to be accountability for what goes on,” he said.
Limbert acknowledges that getting compensation from companies that violate sanctions against Iran is not ideal, but says decades of failed attempts to get direct accountability from Iran make him and other former hostages believe it is not in the cards.
But he argues Iran needs to get the message once and for all that storming a U.S. Embassy and holding Americans hostage for more than a year has consequences.
“The message has been so far, frankly, has been to the Islamic Republic: You got away with it. You can do these things and there are no consequences. Well, what kind of message does that send on a moral level, on a human level, and on a political level? If someone can get away with this, they can get away with worse. What kind of a foreign policy do you run? What kind of a moral policy do you run when people can do something as outrageous as this, as shameful as this, that something violates every principle, not just of international law and conventions?”
Isakson now has a Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, so the effort is now bipartisan. Still, Democratic Senate sources say the legislation will likely need to be tweaked before Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, will move it through his committee. For example, $4.4 million appears excessive to some lawmakers.
But Limbert agrees with Isakson that the climate is now different thanks to “Argo.”
“Before the film came out and before this renewed interest, we frankly had difficulty getting anyone to listen to our case,” Limbert said.
“We got expressions of sympathy, we got, you know, praise for our bravery, our service to our country. But frankly, that’s not what we were looking for,” he said.