In 1979, Johnny Isakson was just one of many Americans tuning in to Ted Koppel's late night reports on the status of Americans taken hostage in Iran — what became the 444 day saga.
"I was one of the people that was alive when 'Nightline' got started," the Republican senator from Georgia recalled Wednesday. "I took an interest when it happened. Never knew that I would get to the United States Senate, and when I got there on the Foreign Relations Committee, I came to appreciate the work that had been done in the past by people who tried to make compensation happen."
Marking the 35th anniversary of the hostages' release, Isakson, lawmakers and former hostages spoke Wednesday about what it took to secure about $1 billion in financial restitution for those held hostage in Tehran. Through two Congresses, Isakson led a bipartisan group seeking a way around an international agreement that barred compensation to the 52 Americans and their family members.
That restitution finally came as part of the omnibus spending bill approved in December. Isakson emphasized the efforts of his colleagues , thanking a list of lawmakers from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to Rep. Sean P. Duffy, R-Wis.
Others heaped praise on Isakson, who spent seven years working on the issue.
"I really want people to understand what Sen. Isakson did outside of the public view, in meeting with our leadership in the Senate, in leadership in our committee, saying 'Look, this is not about getting a bill filed; it's about justice for individuals and getting it done,'" Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said on a conference call, also highlighting the work of the lead Democrat on the matter, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Blumenthal stressed that the former hostages have waited long enough for compensation. "We need to make sure that these funds are available as soon as possible, as soon as possible, because they deserve it and some of them truly need it," Blumenthal said on the call.
The funds to pay the compensation is derived from assets held by the U.S. Justice Department from a judgment against French bank BNP Paribas, which helped the Iranians and others process financial transactions. The money must now be distributed through a special master.
The former hostages themselves said they were honored that the lawmaker, some of whom they had never met, would work to get the funding decades later, when there was what was described as window of opportunity to get access to Iranian money without running afoul of the Algiers Accords, which provided for Iran to release the hostages.
Even beyond the roughly $1 billion that the law provides for funding the victims of state-sponsored terror fund, former hostage Moorhead Kennedy told reporters Wednesday that Congress' decision to act after so many years could bring something even more significant to those among the former hostages who felt they had been abandoned or forgotten or "written-off."
"This wonderful action on the part of our elected representatives really makes a big difference. We have been remembered, and I think that that brings closure, an important thing for all of us, brings closure to this awful moment in our lives," Kennedy said.
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