House Passes Bill Banning Sanctions Relief Until Iran Pays Damages to U.S. Terror Victims

By Patrick Goodenough | October 2, 2015 | 4:19 AM EDT

Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., speaks about his Justice for Victims of Iranian Terrorism Act on the House floor, alongside a photo of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, killed by Iranian-sponsored terrorists during a 1985 hijacking. (Image: YouTube)

( – In the face of a White House veto threat, the House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday preventing President Obama from lifting any sanctions on Iran until Tehran pays damages, already ordered by U.S. courts, to American victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.

“Until they pay these victims what they’re owed, let’s say no to Iran – not one cent,” Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) said before the House passed his Justice for Victims of Iranian Terrorism Act by a 251-173 vote.

“We’re talking about Iranian-backed assassinations and bombings and attacks across the time zones – from Paris to Jerusalem to New York to Beirut to East Africa to Buenos Aires,” he said. “I say – not one cent.”

“These victims are United States citizens – they’re wives, brothers and sisters, children who hail from all across the nation,” Meehan added. “And they were killed in hijackings and suicide attacks and bombings – of buses and planes and buildings and embassies‎ and shopping malls and pizza parlors.”

Iran owes billions of dollars in court-awarded damages to the American victims of attacks ranging from the bombings of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, to suicide bombings in Israel and the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem during a 1985 hijacking.

Damages worth more than $46 billion have been awarded, of which – according to the Congressional Research Service – some $43.5 billion remain unpaid, including $9 billion relating to the Marine Barracks bombing. The bill passed Thursday applies to court judgments delivered between March 2000 and May 2015.

Under the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is due receive around $100 billion as a result of sanctions relief in return for implementing steps which the administration says will prevent it from development a nuclear weapons capability.

The administration intentionally excluded non-nuclear issues – including terror-sponsorship and the fate of Americans imprisoned in Iran – from the JCPOA negotiations.

“The Obama administration during its negotiations with Iran did not seek for Iran to compensate the families of those whose lives were taken by Iranian terrorism despite these U.S. court judgments,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

“Iran will soon obtain $100 billion, approximately, in unfrozen assets, as well as immeasurable economic and financial benefits by escaping the sanctions regime and reintegrating in the global economy,” he said.

“Iran will get sanctions lifted, and American victims will still be out in the cold. That’s not right, so this legislation addresses this injustice.”

‘False hope’

Opposing the bill, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Iran would not have the money to pay the damages before sanctions are lifted, and that the measure “offers nothing but false hope.”

“The bill says, ‘Iran, pay the claims, but you can’t have any of the funds to pay them.’ So it’s a Catch-22. And who does it hurt? Not Iran,” he said. “It hurts the victims; not a single claim would be paid under this bill.”

But Meehan disputed that.

“Iran has yearly gross domestic product in excess of $1.3 trillion, and they just spent $21 billion on Russian jets,” he said. “The facts show that Iran has the money and will have much more as the sanctions are lifted.”

Thursday’s House vote – 251-173 – fell short of the 290 votes needed to override a veto. The nays all came from Democrats, although ten Democrats (listed below) voted with Republicans in favor of the measure.

Companion legislation has been introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in the Senate, where Democrats are expected to rally around the president again to protect his nuclear deal.

In a statement of policy Wednesday the White House noted that Obama has said “he will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of the JCPOA” and would do so if this bill lands on his desk.

“The administration continues to work to explore all possible avenues for [U.S. terror victim] compensation, but will not do so in a manner that would connect this issue to the JCPOA, thereby jeopardizing its implementation and Iran’s fulfillment of the critical nuclear steps required under the JCPOA,” it said.

Put ‘the many victims of Iran's terrorism before the criminals who conspired to kill them’

During the debate Meehan cited the case of Robert Stethem.

In June 1985, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah hijacked a TWA aircraft during an Athens-Rome flight. The terrorists diverted the plane to Lebanon with its 153 passengers and crew, and there murdered the 23-year-old U.S. Navy diver, dumping his body onto the Beirut runway.

Meehan quoted Stethem’s brother, Ken, a retired Navy SEAL, as saying to him this week, “If the president doesn’t take the opportunity and Congress doesn't take the opportunity to hold Iran accountable for their terrorist acts now, I have to ask ... when will they?”

“Let’s today vote as one House to say we will put Robert Stethem and the many victims of Iran's terrorism before the criminals who conspired to kill them,” Meehan added.

The terrorist who according to the FBI masterminded the TWA hijacking and many other deadly terror attacks, Hezbollah security chief Imad Mugniyah, was killed in a 2008 bomb blast in Damascus which the group blamed on Israel.

Mugniyah is remembered by Iran as a “heroic martyr,” and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Secretary of State John Kerry’s partner in the nuclear talks, has paid homage at his Beirut tomb.

The 10 Democrats who voted for the legislation Thursday were Reps. Brad Ashford (D-Nebr.), Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), Gwen Graham (D-Fla.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) and Filemon Vela (D-Texas).

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow