The Ghosts That Haunt an Iran Accord

The Iran deal is probably going to happen — and this is a good thing. The Islamic Republic ostensibly gives up its surreptitious race for the bomb in exchange for an end to economic sanctions. Absolutely, there are grave uncertainties, but the alternative may well be a military conflagration that is in no one’s interest. For the first time in 36 years, the deal also opens the door just a crack to the possibility of a major strategic rapprochement between America and the Shiite Islamic community, including not only Iran but also Lebanon’s Hezbollah. After all, we now share a common enemy: the so-called Islamic State.

And, though no one mentions it, Iran needs at least a hundred billion dollars of foreign investment to modernize its oil fields, and American oil companies are eager to bid for these contracts once sanctions are lifted.

But here’s the rub: Largely forgotten are two judgments handed down in U.S. Federal District Courts. Dammarell vs. the Islamic Republic of Iran (2003) and Peterson vs. the Islamic Republic of Iran (2007) held Iran responsible for truck bomb attacks on the United States Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 and a similar attack on the U.S. Marines barracks in October of that year. Seventeen Americans were killed in the embassy attack — including eight C.I.A. officers — and 32 Lebanese employees died. Two hundred and forty-one U.S. servicemen were killed in the Marine barracks bombing. Both civil suits, and one later filed by the Lebanese employees resulted in multibillion dollar judgments against Iran. The Iranian government, which did not respond to the lawsuit or defend itself at trial, has yet to pay a penny to any of the families of the victims or the survivors.
These outstanding judgments represent a major stumbling block to any diplomatic resolution of Washington’s troubled relations with Tehran. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which the Iranians agree to accept responsibility for truck bomb attacks that occurred more than three decades ago. And yet it is equally unimaginable that the Obama administration could ignore the Federal District Court judgments entered on behalf of so many American civilians, servicemen and intelligence officers. When the economic embargo against Iran is lifted, the lawyers representing these claimants will demand that these judgments be paid — and they are sure to go after any American corporations doing business with Iran. (Congress made this possible in January 2008 with a law that permits federal courts to seize commercial funds flowing between American companies and Iranian entities, such as the Iranian National Oil Company, and direct these monies to the victims of the Iranian attacks.)

No doubts exist about Iran’s responsibility. One of those who died in the Beirut Embassy bombing was Robert Ames, the C.I.A.’s top expert on the Middle East. Ames was legendary inside C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., for having penetrated Yasir Arafat’s P.L.O., forming a deep friendship with Arafat’s intelligence chief, Ali Hassan Salameh. A seasoned clandestine officer, Ames regularly briefed President Ronald Reagan in the White House. After the embassy bombing, President Reagan noted in his diary, “We lost [name deleted] our top research man on the Middle East.” Six months later, after a second truck bomb hit the Marine barracks, Reagan wrote, “We all believe Iranians did this bombing, just as they did with our embassy last April.”

Washington had its suspicions but no hard evidence that Iran had launched the attacks. But now we have the names of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers responsible for these deaths. One of them is Ali Reza Asgari, a Guard intelligence officer stationed in Baalbek, Lebanon, throughout the 1980s. Asgari later served as Iran’s deputy defense minister. But according to numerous Western news reports, in 2007 Asgari defected, apparently to the United States, bringing with him a laptop filled with information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and much information about his training of Hezbollah’s intelligence apparatus in the 1980s and ’90s.

Some of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council advisers evidently believed that the intelligence Asgari brought to the table on the Iranian nuclear program was invaluable. In effect, national security trumped whatever justice the United States government owed to the memory of Robert Ames and all of Asgari’s other victims. It was a cold calculation. When one high-level intelligence official in the Bush White House was asked about Asgari’s asylum, he responded, “At the unclassified level, I cannot elaborate on the issue.”

No one in official Washington can talk about Asgari. It’s an official secret. The C.I.A. “categorically” denies that they had anything to do with “arranging” his defection. Yes, Asgari “arranged” his own defection. But quite unbelievably, the C.I.A. claims not to know where he resides today. We now know that Asgari visited Leidschendam, in the Netherlands, in the spring of 2013. He gave testimony to the United Nations Special Tribune for Lebanon investigating the assassination in 2005 of the country’s prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Obviously, if Asgari was in the Netherlands he traveled under the protection of some Western intelligence organization.

Dealing with bad guys is part of spy craft. If you are seeking information about the unsavory, you necessarily seek out bad guys. But there’s always a decision made about the trade-off. Awarding asylum to a man with Asgari’s résumé entails a pricey moral calculation. Unlike most intelligence assets, this man is implicated in the deaths of hundreds of Americans and many other innocent foreign nationals.

But American asylum for the mastermind of the Beirut bombings does not vacate the U.S. District Court judgments again Iran. While U.S. courts have awarded billions of dollars to the victims of the bombings, no one has seen a penny of these judgments because Iranian financial assets frozen in the United States were long ago depleted by other cases — including a $41.7 million award authorized by Congress to Terry Anderson, the reporter who was held hostage for eight years in Lebanon. Iran won’t agree to pay these judgments; they deny any culpability.

Still, as a matter of simple justice, the victims of the Beirut bombings should not be forgotten. We can only hope the diplomats find a reasonable solution to a seemingly impossible problem. That’s what diplomats do.

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and the author of the biography, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.

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