Former Iran hostages push lawmakers to secure restitution for their ordeal

Don Cooke, of Gaithersburg, is one of 39 surviving Americans who were held hostage by Iran in 1979.

WASHINGTON — Don Cooke remembers the protesters pouring over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — some wearing images of the Ayatollah Khomeini on their chests — and his scrambled and ultimately futile escape into the raucous streets of the Iranian capital.

Cooke, who was a 24-year-old vice consul in 1979, was captured, blindfolded and loaded onto a bus, where his covered eyes could make out the butt of a shotgun bouncing on the metal floor as he was driven through the city.


Student supporters of Khomeini's Islamic Revolution would hold Cooke and 51 other Americans for 444 days — from 1979 to 1981 — in what became a watershed event for the United States in the Middle East.

More than three decades after the hostages came home, Cooke and others caught up in the ordeal still are seeking millions of dollars in compensation from Iran for what they say was a violation of international law that forever changed their lives.


The group believes current negotiations unfolding over the country's nuclear program might provide the best opportunity in years to finally realize that goal.

"It would be an acknowledgment of their responsibility for violating international law and engaging in an act of terrorism," said Cooke, now 60. The Gaithersburg man is one of three former hostages who live in Maryland.

"I put it behind me fairly quickly," he said, "but it has had impacts on my life in the strangest possible ways."

For the months of solitary confinement, the beatings and the mock executions, the 39 surviving hostages and their families are seeking $448 million.

The latest test in their decades-long struggle will come this week as lawmakers consider a controversial bill to give Congress a say in any deal the Obama administration negotiates with Iran.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, has proposed adding language to the legislation that would provide payment to the hostages.

"As we debate our foreign policy toward Iran, it seems more appropriate than ever that we compensate the victims of the Iran hostage crisis who were forced to endure unimaginable fear, despair and torture," Isakson said in a statement.

It is not clear that anyone opposes the idea of restitution, but the timing never seems right politically.


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday on the so-called Corker-Menendez bill, the legislation that would give Congress the ability to weigh in on a nuclear deal.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, supports the idea of congressional review, but says the legislation must be tweaked to address White House concerns. He said Monday he would prefer that compensation for hostages be left out of it.

It's possible, Cardin said, that the issue could be considered by the committee separately.

"This bill needs to stay as clean as it possibly can," he said.

The White House has threatened to veto the legislation as written. Whether that will happen might depend on whatever deal Cardin and Republican committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee can negotiate by Tuesday.

A State Department official said the administration remains "deeply grateful" to the former hostages and vowed to support "our shared goal with Congress of providing additional compensation."


But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations more freely, said the issue should be handled separately from the current talks with Iran.

"We have been clear in saying that the ongoing nuclear talks are focused on one issue and one issue only — ensuring that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon," the official said.

After the hostages were released, the government gave them back pay and an additional $50 for each day in captivity, or about $22,000.

Attorneys for the hostages point to federal court cases that have set restitution rates in similar situations at $10,000 a day.

Their effort has been blocked in federal court by the Algiers Accords, the deal the Carter administration signed with Khomeini's Islamic Republic of Iran in 1981 to secure the hostages' release. That document, which was not approved by Congress, barred the hostages from winning a financial award against Iran.

Lawyers for the hostages have turned to Congress in search of some other way to gain restitution, such as through a surcharge on fines assessed against businesses that violate U.S. sanctions.


Cooke stressed that they're not interested in U.S. taxpayers picking up the tab.

"I have not heard a rational counter to our argument that we should receive equal treatment with every other victim of state-sponsored terrorism," said Tom Lankford, a lawyer for the former hostages and their families.

"Living literally in fear of your life for 444 days is incomprehensible," he said. "You're never the same."

Cooke visited Capitol Hill on Monday to meet with senators about the Isakson amendments.

Between meetings, he spoke of the tense environment of Tehran, his first diplomatic post, in 1979.

Earlier that year, supporters of Khomeini's Islamic Revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran and sent him into exile. Soon after Cooke's arrival, President Jimmy Carter allowed the shah to travel to New York for cancer treatment, enraging the revolutionaries.


Within weeks, Cooke watched as young protesters scaled the buildings of the U.S. compound. One man used a shipping container to climb into a second-floor bathroom window. A Marine stationed at the complex tossed a tear gas canister into the bathroom and tied the door shut.

A group of employees ran out of the embassy. Some made it to the home of the Canadian ambassador and eventually escaped, a story recounted in the 2012 film "Argo." But Cooke said he and a few others made it only about a block and a half before a uniformed Revolutionary Guard fired a semiautomatic weapon over their heads, turning them back toward the compound.

Cooke, who spoke Farsi and worked for the consular section — where issues tend to be less political — believes he might have been treated better than others.

But as he was transported through the city, his hands were bound in manacles. And he remembers being led out of a room and forced to stand before a mock firing squad.

Cooke stayed with the Foreign Service long after the crisis, retiring in 2012 after a career that included other dangerous overseas posts, including Iraq. When his son considered joining the Foreign Service years later, Cooke didn't wave him off.

He said he isn't resentful about the incident, or the decades of failure to win some measure of compensation from the Iranians.


"Life is just unfair sometimes," he said. "If you keep going into a negative spiral on something that happened and you have no control over it, it's going to ruin your life."