July 13, 2024

What is someone’s life worth? A million dollars? A billion?

Our nation this week released $6 billion to gain the freedom of five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran on a myriad of questionable charges. Do the math: That’s $1.2 billion for each U.S. citizen to come home.

The Biden administration quickly announced that the deal made five families “whole again.” That’s certainly true. Three men who were identified and two others whose names have been withheld had been jailed by Iran for reasons that seemed immensely unjust. They’ve come home. That’s great news.

Given that the money was paid to gain the freedom of innocent people taken hostage by a nation that consistently behaves like a pirate state, the White House went to great lengths to claim that the $6 billion was not some sort of modern-day ransom. The $6 billion actually belonged to Iran. No U.S. dollars were turned over to the Iranians.

That’s all true, too. But as with so much of the story of terrorism now and how America responds, there is a disturbing backstory.

Is there anything normal in dealing with Iran?

Americans freed from Iran return to the USAmericans freed from Iran return to the US

Americans freed from Iran return to the US

First, the $6 billion. It was money paid for oil that the Iranians sold across the world. Under normal circumstances, where nations actually trust each other enough to craft respectable goods-for-services business deals, the money would have been deposited in Iranian banks years ago.

But dealing with Iran is never normal.

In 2018, after scrapping the highly questionable and controversial Iranian nuclear deal that had been negotiated by the Obama administration and several other nations, then-President Donald Trump, citing Iran’s uptick in terror activities, ordered the $6 billion to be held in South Korean banks.

Trump’s goal was to stop Iran from its long history of funding terrorism. But Trump was not the first president to freeze Iranian assets this way. President Jimmy Carter started the frozen-funds trend four decades ago.

Which brings us to those frozen assets. Why hold them?

One reason was to punish Iran for its years of hostage-taking and terrorism. Another was to limit the amount of money the Iranians could use to fund their proxy killers such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and on the West Bank and a myriad of thugs in Iraq. To name just a few.

Targeting ‘frozen’ assets

But yet another reason is worth examining now, especially in light of the recent release of the $6 billion.

For the past two decades, Iran’s so-called “frozen” assets — held in a variety of U.S. government accounts and elsewhere in banks — have been targeted in lawsuits filed by American victims of terrorism.

Without the U.S. military attacking Iran as punishment for killing Americans, terror victims have increasingly turned to the court system for some measure of justice. Think of this as a complicated version of an injury lawsuit. Someone is hurt or killed and the courts are left to dole out punishment, usually with a monetary judgment.

Here in New Jersey, Stephen Flatow, of West Orange, led the way against Iran, first by convincing Congress to pass the “Flatow Amendment” that allowed U.S. citizens to circumvent the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and file lawsuits in American courts against state sponsors of terrorism.

Flatow’s daughter, Alisa, was killed in an Iranian-financed suicide bombing, carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 1995 on a road in the Gaza Strip. Instead of retreating into his sorrow like so many terror victims, Flatow embarked on a brave crusade to punish Iran.

After lobbying successfully to change U.S. law, Flatow took his new legal weapon to a federal court in Washington, D.C., and won a judgment against Iran of nearly $250 million.

But he never collected — not in Iranian money, anyway.

September 19, 2023: Family members embrace freed US Emad Shargi after disembarking from an airplane at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The United States and Iran, on Sept.18, 2023, swapped five prisoners each in one of the arch-foes first deals in years as Tehran gained access to $6 billion in frozen funds. The five Americans freed by Iran, including one held for eight years, flew out of Tehran in a Qatari jet, hours after the unblocked funds were deposited in accounts managed by Qatar.September 19, 2023: Family members embrace freed US Emad Shargi after disembarking from an airplane at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The United States and Iran, on Sept.18, 2023, swapped five prisoners each in one of the arch-foes first deals in years as Tehran gained access to $6 billion in frozen funds. The five Americans freed by Iran, including one held for eight years, flew out of Tehran in a Qatari jet, hours after the unblocked funds were deposited in accounts managed by Qatar.

September 19, 2023: Family members embrace freed US Emad Shargi after disembarking from an airplane at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The United States and Iran, on Sept.18, 2023, swapped five prisoners each in one of the arch-foes first deals in years as Tehran gained access to $6 billion in frozen funds. The five Americans freed by Iran, including one held for eight years, flew out of Tehran in a Qatari jet, hours after the unblocked funds were deposited in accounts managed by Qatar.

Flatow’s attorneys targeted more than $400 million in frozen Iranian funds, held by the Pentagon. Iran paid the money in the 1970s for tanks, fighter jets and other military equipment being sold by the U.S. But when Iran’s mullahs seized control of Iran in 1979 and took U.S. diplomats as hostages, Carter, then the president, froze the military funds.

Flatow hoped to dip into that frozen cash. But the Clinton administration, fearing possible damage to future Iranian relations if the money was given to Flatow and other U.S. terror victims, set up numerous legal roadblocks. The Bush administration played the same game.

U.S. authorities ended up with a compromise. The U.S. would officially hold on to the frozen Iranian money, but gave Flatow a check in U.S. funds for fraction of what he was owed. The idea was to offer some financial comfort to Flatow and place a lien of sorts — in legal terms, a subrogation — on the frozen Iranian funds for some sort of negotiation later when the Iranian mullahs decided to behave like civilized people.

Other families were also compensated like this, including the Dukers of Teaneck, New Jersey and the Eisenfelds of West Hartford, Connecticut, whose children were killed in a Palestinian Hamas bombing in Jerusalem in 1996 that had been financed by Iran. They received a fraction of what the court ordered Iran to be paid. But at least it was something — but again, with a lien or subrogation against Iran that would be settled sometime in the future.

Analysis: Americans are freed from Iran. So, why is the prisoner swap controversial for Biden?

More time, more lawsuits

Bolstered by the legal victories by the Flatow, Duker and Eisenfeld families, the list of terror victims who filed lawsuits continued to grow and even included former Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, who had been taken hostage by Iran’s Hezbollah in the 1980s.

Perhaps the most consequential lawsuit was filed by the families of the more than 200 U.S. Marines killed in the Hezbollah terrorist bombing in 1983 in Lebanon. In March, after years of legal wrangling, a federal judge in New York ordered Iran to pay more than $1.3 billion as compensation for its financing of the 1983 bombing. Once again, Iran’s frozen assets were targeted.

Full disclosure: I chronicled these stories in my 2014 book, “The Bus on Jaffa Road.”  I also edited Flatow’s 2018 memoir, “A Father’s Story,” and contributed an essay to another book of collected writings by Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld, who died in the February 1996 bombing of the Number 18 bus in downtown Jerusalem. Duker, a promising biologist, and Eisenfeld, a rabbinical student, were in a budding romance that many friends believed was destined for marriage.

The legal glue behind all of these intensely emotional court cases has long been Iran’s money that had been frozen by U.S. authorities as a way of punishing Iran for its terrorist activities. Iran, which did not even bother to show up in court to contest many of these lawsuits, nevertheless seemed acutely aware that it could lose billions in frozen assets.

Which brings us to the next piece of this saga.

In 2015, the U.S., along with China, Russia, France, Great Britain and Germany, worked out a plan in which Iran promised to curtail its development of a nuclear bomb. In return for the deal — and for releasing four U.S. hostages — Iran demanded money.

The Obama administration sent Iran $1.7 billion — the $400 million that Flatow and the other victims had been targeting and another $1.3 billion in interest on those frozen assets. When Trump canceled U.S. involvement in the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran did not return the money.

Instead, Iran offered to return other U.S. citizens it had unjustly imprisoned in return for more frozen assets.

What to know: Iran releases five Americans in prisoner swap deal negotiated by Joe Biden

Who is still missing?

Which bring us to the $6 billion paid to Iran.

Yes, five U.S. citizens were brought home. Five Iranians, convicted in U.S. courts of non-violent crimes and imprisoned, were also told they could return to their homeland. Two went back; three others opted to stay in America.

Meanwhile, other Americans are still imprisoned in Iran — or are missing.

One of the missing, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, reportedly on assignment for the CIA, was abducted by Iran more than 16 years ago. U.S. authorities think Levinson, who would be 76 now and suffered from diabetes, is believed to have died in an Iranian jail. Iran won’t confirm or deny this — or say anything about Levinson’s whereabouts or return his body to his family.

But Iran now has $6 billion to spend. It promises not to use the money for terrorism.

Back here, America is left to wonder how much a life is really worth.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in the Northeast, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Iran prisoner swap: On NJ backstory and frozen assets

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