Three years after hostages seized, US-Iran relations remain icy
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However, six months ago the US government did break down and purchase $53 million worth of Iran's most valuable commodity, oil, to help fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The buy was a bargain. Through a Swiss trading company, Iran offered the oil at $4.50 a barrel less than the OPEC base price. Pressed for cash to finance its war against Iraq, Iran may be whispering similar inducements to private oil firms.Skip to next paragraph
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''American companies have been approached with nice discounts, really attractive deals,'' claims Barry Rubin, a Georgetown University fellow and author of a book on the US experience in Iran.
There is one arena where the two governments can't avoid talking to each other: the US-Iran Claims Tribunal established by the hostage release agreement. The tribunal is a panel of nine arbitrators, three from the US, three from Iran, and three from neutral countries. It's charged with settling the approximately 4 ,000 US and Iranian suits stemming from the embassy takeover.
The tribunal is not acting with lightning speed. Proceedings are conducted in both English and Farsi, for one thing, and the Iranians are stalling with such tactics as insisting US litigants prove their nationality to the ''nth degree,'' claims a State Department official.
''This thing might take 10 or 20 years to finish,'' groans a government Middle East specialist.
Twelve large suits filed against Iran by US companies have been settled. B. F. Goodrich Company, for instance, has been paid $178,600 to compensate for the loss of a technical assistance contract with the Kian Tire Company of Iran.
But there are still relatively few cases scheduled for hearings through next spring. And the tribunal has yet to address such tough problems as the thousands of small cases, ranging upwards from the loss of a car or refrigerator, being presented by the respective governments on behalf of their citizens and companies.
The settlement process recently hit a snag. Claims against Iran are paid out of a $1 billion escrow account that is administered by Algeria. At the beginning of October, Algeria decided some crucial points - such as the distribution of interest from the escrow account - hadn't been settled, and refused to pay six claims already awarded by the tribunal.
During the week of Oct. 25, the US was able to persuade Algeria to resume payments. But the glitch ''serves notice the Algerians are very serious in their role as intermediaries,'' says Mike Mealey, editor of the Iranian Assets Litigation Reporter.
The interruption in payments could portend problems in the future, say some US observers.
Iran, for its part, has filed charges with the tribunal claiming that the US has committed 18 specific violations of the agreement that secured the release of the hostages. The charges, says Thomas Shack, a lawyer representing the Iranians, range from ''failure to transfer certain types of assets, to failure to halt litigation worldwide.''
Ironically, a federal appeals court ruled early last month that former hostages can't sue Iran but left undecided the question of whether ex-hostages could sue the US.