Iran Unrest Gives Former U.S. Embassy in Tehran Hostages Hope For Justice After 36 Years

An Iranian man passes by an anti-U.S. mural outside the former U.S. Embassy at a gathering to mark the 25th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy on November 3, 2004 in Tehran, Iran. Majid Saeedi/Getty

David M. Roeder remembers sitting handcuffed to a chair in a dingy Tehran cell as his Iranian interrogators made a bid for his cooperation.

They started by telling him the precise time a bus picked up his son—born with a form of cerebral palsy—at his Virginia home. Then they told him the special education school it drove him to. Then the time he was returned. The details were all correct. His child was being watched.

Roeder’s captors had threatened to not only kidnap his son, but to dismember him—but his fingers and toes would be the first to go, they said.

It was 1979 at the Embassy of the United States, Tehran, just months after the Iranian revolution had swept across the country and led to the formation of the Islamic Republic. Roeder was part of a group of 52 American diplomats and citizens held hostage and tortured by Iranian students for 444 days from 1979 to 1981.

Almost 40 years later, the regime remains in power. Just as the so-called Green Movement of 2009 rattled the clerics who rule Iran, so too have a new wave of protests that began on December 28, 2017. They have spread to cities across the country and shocked authorities in the Islamic Republic.

The full extent of the protests—which began in Iran's second largest city of Mashhad—remains unclear, but estimates suggest that tens of thousands took part, with many aggrieved by unemployment, a stagnant economy and corruption.

01_05_Iran_Protest An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. STR/AFP/Getty

Roeder and his fellow former hostages feel that they hold a particular stake in what is taking place in the country. Their bid for justice—and demand for compensation for their treatment in 1979—remains unfulfilled 36 years after their release. For them, the prospect of regime change in Iran could bring more than relief to its 80 million citizens, but the apology and redress they believe they have long deserved.

The former captives, fronted by Roeder and infamously portrayed in the 2012 Academy Award-winning film Argo, finally secured compensation in December 2015 in a Congress spending bill, giving each of the hostages or their estates up to $4.4 million after years of campaigning.

But they have lost more than a dozen members of the original group who will never see either that money, or even an Iranian apology. Even those that have survived will receive their compensation in small instalments, with the next tranche reportedly not due until 2019. They believe that time is running out, and that the protests in Iran once again revive their campaign for justice.

“It makes perfect sense to me that they are not happy with their current situation. We’re all hoping that the U.S.’s reaction to the Green Revolution will not be repeated,” 78-year-old Roeder tells Newsweek by phone, referring to the perception among Republicans that then-President Barack Obama delivered a weak response to popular Iranian unrest in 2009 by refusing to back the protesters.  

Don Cooke, a 62-year-old retired Foreign Service employee with the State Department, who was the youngest officer captured in Tehran (aged 24 at the time), is hopeful that change in Iran could help the cause of the hostages who suffered mock executions and beatings, and were shackled for weeks on end.

“The potential is absolutely there. Everybody hopes for it but it’s by no means certain. What we should do now is make clear our support for the Iranian people,” he says.

“One might anticipate, depending on a regime transformation, a situation where the Iranian government—or an Iranian government—owns up to its obligation to resolve finally the issue of the hostage-taking.”

01_05_Iran_Protests Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, 4 November, 1979. STR/AFP/Getty

President Donald Trump’s support of the protests in Iran, alongside his opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal that was a flagship Obama policy, has added fuel to the campaign for restitution. Now hostages are waiting for his next move. Asked if the current president is the man to bring about the justice the surviving hostages seek, Cooke cites the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv as evidence that Trump is a man of action. “Oh absolutely,” he says. “I think he has demonstrated that.”

But in order to do so, Trump will have to circumnavigate the 1981 agreement signed by Jimmy Carter that secured the release of the hostages, known as the Algiers Accords. Under the deal, Carter agreed that Iran would not be held liable for compensation.

As a result, the hostages had to seek damages from the U.S., and their compensation victory in Congress was only secured with funds taken from a $9 billion penalty paid by French bank BNP Paribas for violating sanctions against Iran, and propelled by anger toward the nuclear agreement. In theory, the $4.4 million will give each hostage $10,000 for every day they spent in captivity.

The lawyer representing the group, Tom Lankford of Alexandria, Va., said the group had received the first tranche of money—the amount of which was undisclosed—but that they were “coming for the rest.” Roeder said he had heard the next payment would not arrive until 2019. That said, the hostages insist that financial motives are not their primary concerns.

“The compensation is not the important point. That’s never been the most important thing to us,” he says.

“It’s a matter of justice. It’s a matter of having someone acknowledge that what happened to us was wrong. We need a country and a people that are going to stand up and assist those that are trying to live free and have a better life, that’s the American way.”

The lack of justice has left the hostages harboring a bitter feeling toward their own government. They believe the issue should have been resolved years ago but has been derailed by politicians on Capitol Hill.

“The State Department really stood in the way of justice for the hostages to an unreasonable degree,” says Cooke, who had a decades-long career in the department. “There’s no reason for that. Everybody accepts that for a whole variety of reasons [a resolution] is fair and justified, and to delay it any further is just sad.”

01_05_Iran_Obama President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal, on July 14, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty

The July 2015 nuclear agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran, returning billions of dollars to the coffers of the Islamic Republic, added insult to injury, Roeder says. Trump and other Republicans allege that the deal has given Iran millions to fund extremism across the Middle East via proxy groups in Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza.

“They’ve never had to apologize, it’s never cost them a penny, in fact they’ve profited by it,” the retired air force colonel says. “It was to give Obama some kind of a legacy. And it was a complete sham.”

So the protests, even if they begin to die down amid a crackdown by the Iranian regime, keep the flicker of hope alive for Roeder, Cooke and the other former hostages that they will secure the justice that has evaded them for most of their lives, because of those not only in Tehran, but in Washington too.

“I mean I’m 78 years old. We’ve lost 19 people already. What, are they waiting for us all to die?” asks Roeder, his voice cracking with emotion. But he pays tribute to those who have campaigned for the group in the Senate, which include Harry Reid, former Senate Democratic leader, Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, Representative Sean Duffy, Republican of Wisconsin, and Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia.

“I made the point of how much we all appreciated how much they had gotten us finally into the end zone,” he says. “But I cautioned them that as good as that was, we still had to kick the point after, and finish the game. We haven’t finished the game yet.”