Ben Affleck's Argo Spotlights a Fight on Capitol Hill

Julia Edwards

The movie Argo made more than $47 million during its first two weeks in theaters, but the 52 American diplomats who did not escape through the CIA plot detailed in the movie have yet to receive a dime in reparations for the 444 days they spent as hostages in Tehran from 1979 to 1981.

Although their legal appeal hit a dead-end in the Supreme Court last May, a bill in the House still stands a good chance of getting the former hostages the compensation they deserve—in this case, $10,000 per day spent in captivity, according to Thomas Lankford, the plaintiffs' attorney in the case.

But the bill, cosponsored by Reps. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., has been stalled in the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution since June 4. A Judiciary Committee aide said there has been “no movement on the bill,” and that any plans to move it forward during the lame-duck session would be determined after the Nov. 6 election.

Braley said he continues to work closely with the House Foreign Affairs Committee to move the bill forward.

“As the [former] hostages age, this long-overdue goal of obtaining justice needs to be accomplished sooner rather than later,” Braley said.

Lankford reviewed the bill and says, if considered, it stands a greater chance of succeeding than the court appeal because the funds won’t come directly from Iran.

Under the agreement then-President Carter signed to have the hostages released, known as the Algiers Accords, Iran was absolved from any damages for the mental and physical torture inflicted upon the Americans. Under that agreement, Iran did not show up at the Supreme Court hearing. The State Department attended and argued that collecting damages from Iran would compromise its ability to conduct foreign policy.

If the bill passes, the reparations would come from fines collected from businesses doing illegal business under current anti-Iran sanctions, and their fines would double as a result.

“We thought, ‘How could we get as close to Iran as possible and hold people who are boldly violating U.S. and international law responsible?’ ” Lankford said of the bill’s drafting process.

Lankford, who has worked closely with the former hostages, said that many face mounting bills to receive mental health and medical treatment for the anguish they suffered in captivity. One he recalls, Phillip Ward, could not hold a coffee cup after his release because of a tremor. Ward died at age 72, one day before Argo’s release, at his home in Culpeper, Va.

“I thought the movie captured the menace that permeated the society [in Iran],” Lankford said.  “If you said the wrong word, if you made the wrong gesture to one of these Iranians, you just disappeared.”