It was 30 years ago today that a mob of Iranian students scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, took 52 Americans hostage and began a lengthy standoff that humbled the most powerful country on earth.
Three decades later, the one-time hostages are still mad. The hostages' memories of their captivity remain vivid and their contempt for their captors remains raw. But mostly they are mad at the U.S. government.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran disavowed international law and never apologized for anything they did," said Barry M. Rosen, 65, now a college administrator in New York City who was working as the embassy's press attache in 1979.
"But I'm angry at my own government. No provisions were made to compensate us hostages. We're still fighting for compensation. I say: 'Shame on you, American government. Shame on you, State Department,'" he said.
A series of administrations has blocked the former hostages' efforts to collect an apology or any financial retribution from the Islamic regime, which held them captive, often blindfolded, in dark cells and in isolation for 444 days. The former hostages object to the deal President Carter agreed to for their release, which they charge was tantamount to negotiating a ransom with terrorists.
The deal the Americans struck with Iran only emboldened the most militant members of the Iranian regime and the United States is still paying the price, former hostages claim. The virulently anti-American leaders unleashed a wave of Iranian-financed terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The deal empowered the most extreme elements of their captors, who now run Iran and have even imprisoned some of their fellow hostage-takers, the former hostages say.
Iran, which was never forced to pay for violating international law with the embassy take-over, is again thumbing its nose at the world by pressing ahead on technology that could lead to a nuclear weapon, former hostages say.
Former Iranian Hostages Still Angry
"The American government should never have cut a deal," said Kevin Hermening, now a financial advisor in Wisconsin, but who was a 20-year-old Marine stationed in the embassy when the crisis began.
"The bottom line is, because our country put the interests of 52 people ahead of the interest of millions of American citizens, we have had to deal with Islamic terrorism for past 30 years," he said.
"The Iranian government has never been held to task with blood or treasure for what took place," he said. "You shouldn't be able to violate international law and get away scot-free."
Hermening and most of the other hostages added their names to a class action lawsuit in 2001, seeking to bring suit in U.S. federal court against the government of Iran to receive reparations.
But despite attempts in the courts and in Congress, as well as appeals to five different presidential administrations, the hostages have never received compensation or an apology, a fact they blame on the State Department's adherence to the deal the United States made with Iran in January 1981.
The hostages involved in the suit said they believe the U.S. government remains hamstrung by a devil's bargain struck by Carter, under intense political pressure in the waning days of his presidency.
Despite successive American administrations labeling the Iranian regime everything from a "rogue state" to a pillar of the "axis of evil," the State Department has fought the former hostages in court.
Under a 1996 law that allows citizens to bring suit against foreign governments in federal court, the hostages sought and won $33 billion in compensatory and punitive damages in 2001. But just prior to a hearing to determine the final damages, the Bush administration in 2002 stepped in and said the case violated the Algiers Accords, preventing the hostages from receiving anything.
The Algiers Accords was the deal between Iran and the Carter administration that freed the hostages, and included a clause preventing the hostages from suing the Iranian regime.
In 2003, the hostages filed another class action lawsuit. The Bush administration offered them a few thousand dollars apiece, but the hostages refused and Congress never acted. In 2004, the Supreme Court refused to hear their case.
Iran Hostage Anniversary a Bitter Milestone
Since then, the former hostages have bided their time, hoping a Congress increasingly concerned with the rise of a even more radicalized and nuclear Iran will be spurred to action.
"Thirty years ago, Iran defied the world and international law by taking U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. Iran continues its defiance today, as it ignores repeated calls by the United Nations Security Council to cease enrichment of uranium. The U.S. needs to increase diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran. We need justice for the American hostages and an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism and Nonproliferation and has been a strong Congressional supporter of the hostages.
A State Department official said that though the United States understood the "frustration of former hostages," the government "was bound" by the obligations it committed to in the Algiers Accords.
"Pursuant to the Algiers Accords, the United States agreed to withdraw its claim against Iran before the International Court of Justice and bar claims arising out of the hostage taking from U.S. courts. Although we understand the frustration of the former hostages, we are bound by this obligation and must continue to honor it, as it was an essential condition of their release from captivity," the official said.