Trump invokes Iran hostages after Soleimani attack; outrageous they are still owed compensation

Illinois ex-hostage Paul Lewis was a 22-year-old Marine when captured and held for 444 days. He’s now 63. “I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because I felt a sense of obligation.”

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An Anti-American crowd demonstrates outside of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Nov. 20, 1979.

An Anti-American crowd demonstrates outside of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Nov. 20, 1979.

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WASHINGTON — Since President Donald Trump recently brought up the American hostages captured at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979, well, it’s a reminder they never received the compensation they were promised. And that’s outrageous.

Trump invoked the U.S hostages captured at the embassy in Tehran onNov. 4, 1979, in the wake of the drone strike killing Iran military leader Qassem Soleimani. That prompted me to call Paul Lewis, who I first started covering when he was one of the Iran hostages.

Lewis told me he approved of Trump’s order to kill Soleimani. “I think taking this guy off was entirely appropriate. He was a terrorist. They had an opportunity; they took it.”

U.S. diplomats, military personnel and civilians were seized at the embassy. One of them was Lewis, then a young Marine from Homer, a town near Champaign in central Illinois. Lewis was 22 and in Tehran less than a day at the time of his capture.

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I was assigned to cover him and his family, racing south on Interstate 57 from Chicago to Homer every time there was a hint they were to be freed. The hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981 — a few minutes after President Ronald Reagan was sworn in and President Jimmy Carter was out of office. I was in Homer for his homecoming.

Trump threatened in a tweet Jan. 4 to attack 52 sites in Iran if Iran retaliated for Soleimani.The 52 sites, Trump said, represented “the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago.”

Trump made another reference in a Jan. 8 speech at the White House. “For far too long — all the way back to 1979, to be exact — nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond.Those days are over.”

Actually, 66 Americans were taken hostage. Thirteen were released a few weeks later; another after 250 days. There were 52 hostages, including Lewis, in captivity for 444 days.

Today, Lewis is 63, the father of two grown sons. Lewis and his wife, Kristi, and sons all work in his wealth management firm in Champaign and live in Sidney.

I asked Lewis what he thought about Trump’s “52 sites” threat. “That was 40 years ago. I really didn’t see the connection, but it didn’t bother me. It sort of ran off my back,” he said.

He appreciated Trump remembering the Iran hostages and said overall Trump was handling this right. “I’m pretty impressed up to now.”

In 2014 I interviewed Lewis for a column about how the hostages were pushing for restitution. The deal between Iran and the U.S. releasing the captives, called the Algiers Accords, prevented the hostages from taking legal actions to pursue compensation from Iran.

To make a long, complicated story short, in 2015, the hostages were promised compensation through the Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act. That act said each Iran hostage was entitled to $10,000 a day. That’s $4.4 million for the entire 444 days.

The money was to come from “forfeiture proceeds, penalties and fines … from civil and criminal matters involving prohibited transactions with state sponsors of terrorism.”

In a further twist, the relatives of the 9/11 victims were entitled to compensation from the same fund. Since the fund has limited cash, paying the Iran hostages the promised compensation is difficult.

Lewis said he has received payments totaling $700,000. He told me he does not want to take any taxpayer money, so for him, the solution is not Congress using taxpayer dollars to replenish the fund. His military service has never been about the money.

“I was a U.S. Marine and I knew when I enlisted I was going to get paid 189 bucks a month. When I got out as a sergeant with over five years service, I had broken a $600-a-month mark. Well, I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because I felt a sense of obligation.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has been working across the aisle on behalf of the Iran hostages and other terrorism victims, told me in an email, “It’s shameful” that the hostages “have not received the compensation they were promised.”

Leahy said Trump should work with Congress to solve this. Said Leahy, “The status quo is not acceptable.”

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