The intervention comes just days after an Iranian court convicted U.S.-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi of spying and sentenced her to eight years’ imprisonment.
Coming at a time when the Obama administration is seeking to engage Iran, the move mirrors similar action taken by the previous administration.
The multi-billion-dollar class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of 52 Americans taken hostage by government-backed Islamists in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic revolution and held at the U.S. Embassy for 444 days.
The Justice Department on Tuesday night filed papers with the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, arguing that the case should not proceed because of an agreement reached with Iran in 1981.
The Carter administration, having failed in April 1980 to rescue the hostages – a abortive military operation cost the lives of eight U.S. military personnel – later negotiated the deal with the help of the government of Algeria.
Finalized in President Carter’s final days in office, the agreement known as the Algiers Accord provided for the release of the hostages, the unfreezing of Iranian assets, and immunity from future prosecutions arising out of the Americans’ captivity.
The hostages were accordingly released on Jan. 20, 1981, shortly after President Reagan was sworn in.
(Another section of the agreement includes a U.S. pledge to the effect that “it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs.” Tehran has cited that commitment on occasion, for instance when the Bush administration in 2007 imposed sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.)
‘Kidnapping and ransom agreement’
The Algiers Accord has been an insurmountable hurdle in previous attempts by the former hostages to seek damages from Iran.
After several suits against Iran were dismissed, Congress in 1996 passed the Antiterrorism Act, which removed foreign governments’ immunity in cases of state-sponsored terrorism. It was pointedly made retroactive to November 1979, when the hostage crisis began.
Based on that legislation, in late December 2000 a suit was filed on behalf of the 52 Americans seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Iran for injuries and damages incurred during their captivity.
Iran chose not to mount a defense and trial court in the Roeder v. the Islamic Republic of Iran case the following August granted a default judgment to the plaintiffs, and scheduled a hearing to award damages.
However, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism, just days before the scheduled hearing in October 2001, Justice and State Department attorneys intervened, arguing that the suit was barred by the provisions of the Algiers Accords.
Some U.S. lawmakers were furious.
“The Algiers Accord is not a treaty and was never submitted to the Congress for ratification,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in a late 2001 statement. “It is a kidnapping and ransom agreement that was entered into under duress while the Ayatollah was threatening to put the Americans on trial as ‘spies’ and execute them.”
Despite attempts by Harkin and other members of Congress to facilitate the suit going ahead – by enacting riders to pending appropriations bills – the district court in 2002 dismissed the case, arguing that the Algiers Accords were binding on the U.S. and that Congress had not acted with sufficient clarity to abrogate the provision.
Congress later passed further legislation seeking to allow lawsuits against Iran despite the agreement.
Last year, a section was included in the National Defense Authorization Act giving Americans the right to sue foreign states that engage in terrorism, including a specific reference to cases “concerning the taking of American hostages by Iran in 1979.”
The former hostages cited that clause – section 1083 – in their new lawsuit.
But in its motion to dismiss lodged this week, the DOJ argued against the relevance of section 1083, noting that it makes no reference to the Algiers Accords.
It said the agreement with Iran was binding and “must be honored by the United States unless and until Congress (1) abrogates the Algiers Accords expressly in conjunction with relevant legislation, or (2) unambiguously creates a cause of action for the embassy hostage plaintiffs against Iran. Congress has done neither.”
The relevant part of the Algiers Accords states: “The United States will … bar and preclude the prosecution against Iran of any pending or future claim of the United States or a United States national arising out of events occurring before the date of this declaration related to (a) the seizure of the 52 United States nationals on November 4, 1979, (b) their subsequent detention, (c) injury to United States property or property of the United States nationals within the United States Embassy compound in Tehran after November 3, 1979, and (d) injury to the United States nationals or their property as a result of popular movements in the course of the Islamic Revolution in Iran which were not an act of the Government of Iran.”
Carter formalized the agreement with a subsequent executive order