The Islamic Republic of Iran is a singular political system in many respects. Over the past 42 years, a considerable number of its officials have faced criminal charges in other countries. What other country’s accredited diplomats have been convicted in a foreign court of law for planning a bomb attack? In what other country are citizens fighting to hold their own head of state and president accountable for shooting down a civilian passenger plane?
Time and again, Iranian officials have sought either to justify these acts of criminality, or to portray them as a “holy” endeavor: one enacted in the name of preserving Islam and the Islamic state. In this series of articles, entitled Holy Terror, IranWire reviews the characteristics of this astonishing pattern of behavior over the decades.
The number of lawsuits and criminal cases filed in the United States against the Islamic Republic and its officials exceeds 10,000. Many of the final verdicts have yet to be issued, but those judgements that have been made call for Iran must pay more than US$100 billion in outstanding damages: the equivalent to the total of the country’s oil revenues before sanctions were reimposed.
In 2020 alone - not a busy year due to the pandemic – some 520 complaints were filed against the Islamic Republic in US courts. Most of these are class-action lawsuits with multiple plaintiffs. For example, the families of victims of the shooting-down of Ukrainian Airlines flight PS752 have filed a lawsuit against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a number of senior Revolutionary Guards commanders with the district court in Washington, DC.
A Wide Range of Wrongdoings
The US legal cases cover an array of civil and criminal infractions, from the confiscation of property in Iran to torture, harassment, cyber-crime, kidnapping and acts of terror, as well as attacks on the US military in Iraq.
One of the more recent cases filed in the US has its origins in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Abbas Amir-Entezam, a spokesman for the interim government after the revolution and the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Sweden, was charged by Iran with “spying for the CIA” in December 1979 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison in July 2018, aged 85.
In mid-July 2019, Amir-Entezam’s three children filed a lawsuit against the Islamic Republic and the Revolutionary Guards with a federal court in New York over his almost 40 years of unlawful incarceration and house arrest, during which time he was subjected to torture, solitary confinement and a lack of medical care that ultimately led to his death. They also said they had suffered significantly from the immense pain intentionally imposed on their family by the Iranian regime, which had consistently refused their requests to visit their father.
Other plaintiffs against the Islamic Republic include the family of Alisa Flatow, an American college student killed in a 1995 suicide bombing attack in Gaza by Iran-backed terror group Islamic Jihad; the wife and the children of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared on March 9, 2007 while on a visit to Kish Island; and family members of victims of a bomb attack on the American barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen.
The plaintiffs are mostly US citizens, and the majority of them are of Iranian origin. Some of the plaintiffs worked for American companies and individuals, and hold Iran responsible for the damages they have suffered financially, physically and psychologically.
The US government itself has also filed lawsuits against Iranian nationals, most of which are mostly related to activities aimed at bypassing sanctions to help the Islamic Republic. A number of these individuals have been arrested on American soil and faced trial, or are still awaiting trial. There is also a second group, consisting of Iranians who have been extradited from other countries at the request of the US, and a third group, comprising Iranian citizens who live in Iran but are nonetheless under indictment in the US.
In January 2021, the US Justice Department charged Abdollah Momeni, a student activist in Iran, and two Iranian residents of Canada with illegally exporting sensitive equipment to the country. The indictment alleges that “as part of the conspiracy, the defendants and their co-conspirators planned and acted outside of the United States – in Iran and Canada, among other places – to purchase goods inside the United States to send to Iran.”
In some cases individuals who were arrested in the US for violating sanctions have been released through prisoner exchanges. Some of the freed prisoners of Iran have gone on to lawsuits against the Islamic Republic for their unjustified detention and imprisonment on returning to the US.
Planeload of Cash in Exchange for Four Prisoners
In 2016, following the signing of the nuclear deal, the Obama administration acknowledged that it had transferred $1.7 billion to Iran in cash. According to the US Treasury, the $1.7 billion was the settlement of a decades-old arbitration claim between the two countries.
An initial $400 million in euros, Swiss francs and other foreign currency was delivered to Tehran on a special plane on January 17. On the same day, Iran agreed to release four prisoners. The Obama administration initially claimed that the money was not to secure the release of the US citizens, but Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said on TV that negotiations to release the dual-national prisoners in exchange for the money had been authorized by Ayatollah Khamenei and carried out by agents of the Intelligence Ministry.
Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s correspondent in Iran, his wife Yeganeh Salehi, Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor and Amir Hekmati, a former US Marine, were the dual nationals who were allowed to leave Iran after the plane filled with cash landed in Tehran.
After returning to the US, Rezaian and Abedini filed lawsuits against the Islamic Republic. In November 2019 US District Judge Richard J. Leon in Washington awarded $180 million to Rezaian, his wife and his mother. In his ruling the judge described how authorities in Iran had denied the journalist sleep and medical care and abused him during his imprisonment.
“Iran seized Jason, threatened to kill him, and did so with the goal of compelling the United States to free Iranian prisoners as a condition of his release,” said Judge Leon. “Holding a man hostage and torturing him to gain leverage in negotiations with the United States is outrageous, deserving of punishment and surely in need of deterrence.”
The Iranian regime does not recognize the jurisdiction of US courts in such cases and has refused to pay damages ordered by them. To receive payment for damages the plaintiffs must ask US prosecutors to seize and confiscate assets in the United States that belong to the Iranian government. So far, of the $100 billion that courts have awarded to plaintiffs, the confiscation of just under two billion dollars’ worth of assets has been finalized and several billion dollars are in the process of being seized.