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Americans held hostage in Iran to finally receive compensation

WASHINGTON — Even after three decades, Mike Moeller had a familiar reaction to news that he and others taken hostage in 1979 at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran finally will receive compensation for their 444 days of captivity.

“Initially,” Moeller said, “I sat and waited. I thought about a few things, then got up and went through my daily routine.”

He compared his subdued reaction to those he had so often when told to pack his gear and prepare for some kind of change in his captivity.

“Quite often it would never happen,” Moeller said in a telephone interview. “We got into the habit of doing what we were told.”

Tom Lankford, an attorney for the former hostages and their families, described Moeller’s reaction to the much-anticipated news as “quite powerful” and an insightful reminder of how he survived his ordeal where fear of losing his life became part of his routine.

“The only way you survive those 444 days is to focus on the here and now,” Lankford said.

In a separate telephone interview, Elisa Wood, Moeller’s former wife and the mother of his two daughters, also commented on the news.

All three live in Sparks.

“It has been a long time coming,” Wood said, adding it felt like a weight is being lifted from her shoulders. “Even though they were released in ’81, we were still kind of held hostage.”

Now, she said, the former hostages and their families finally can move forward from the lengthy effort to hold Iran accountable.

After close calls that Lankford said were undone, sometimes at the eleventh hour, the long-awaited provisions on awarding compensation to the former hostages and their families were included in a massive spending bill approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier this month.

Foreign immunity and an agreement known as the Algiers Accords that led to the hostages’ release in 1981 essentially blocked their efforts in U.S. courts to receive compensation directly from Iran.

To get around that legal obstacle, the spending bill provisions allow the compensation to come from penalties paid by companies that violated sanctions against Iran.

Victims of later acts of terrorism also will be covered by the new program. Lankford said the program and its standard tax-free payments will be administered by a special master.

Payments of up to $10,000 per day — or $4.4 million — are authorized for those taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, and the estates of the 15 who have died, he said.

Spouses and children of the former hostages also can receive up to $600,000, Lankford said.

Five years after their release, the former hostages each received about $22,000 from the government.

Moeller, who was a staff sergeant with the U.S. Marines when he was taken hostage, retired from the military in 1991 and lives in Loup City, Neb. He said he will use part of his compensation to lessen his worries about his retirement.

In quite forceful terms, he also shared his plans to take a “significant amount” of the payment to help others who also have been harmed by poor decisions.

In a 2014 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Moeller said Iran’s success in holding off the U.S. for 444 days helped make America more vulnerable because it was not as respected as it once was.

He also spoke of his difficulty as a Marine in following orders to fall back during that fateful time in 1979 and surrender the embassy.

Asked to comment on the current approach that does not require the compensation to come from Iran directly or even an apology, Moeller said he has yet to hear one sincere thought from any Iranian leader.

“So, I don’t want any crap apology from them now,” he said.

Wood acknowledged the limitations of the approach laid out by the new law.

“Should Iran pay? Yes. Should Iran apologize? Yes. Is it going to happen? No,” she said. “We all understand that.”

At age 27 in 1979 with her 2-year-old and 4-year-old, Wood and her daughters were the youngest of the hostage families.

She cited the age of many of the former hostages and family members whose harm was noted by a judge who heard one of the cases.

“It is nice they are going to have some satisfaction … for this before they get older,” Wood said.

Moeller and Wood heaped praise on Lankford’s team, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other key lawmakers for their support in getting the provisions in a bill that could be passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

“Sen. Reid has worked so hard for the last six months,” Wood said. “I have an amazing amount of gratitude and appreciation for his work.”

Reid addressed his role in a statement released by his office.

“I made it a top priority to ensure that compensation for the Iranian hostages be included in the omnibus legislation,” Reid said.

“While a number of them have already passed away, I am pleased with the legislation, which finally provides closure for these Americans, who suffered at the hands of the Iranian regime, along with other victims of terrorism.”

Contact Jim Myers at jmyers@reviewjournal.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @myers_dc

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