In 1995, an operative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) drove a van filled with explosives into an Israeli bus, killing the American college student Alisa Flatow along with seven Israelis, and wounding dozens more. With the help of the attorneys Steven Perles and Thomas Fay, Flatow’s father Stephen sued Iran, the main sponsor of PIJ, initiating a legal battle that went on for over a decade. Convincing a U.S. court to award damages proved relatively easy, but convincing the Clinton administration to pay the damages out of Iranian assets proved nearly impossible. M. R. O’Connor tells the story of the case, and the eventual victory:
Perles and Fay . . . knew that within a few miles of their own offices were three pieces of real estate that no one could deny were Iranian: the embassy chancery of Iran, the residence of the minister of cultural affairs of the embassy of Iran, and the residency of the military attaché of the embassy of Iran. All three had been seized by the State Department on April 7, 1980. . . .
Stephen Flatow’s legal team filed a writ of attachment—a court order to seize an asset—for the properties on July 8, 1998. The next day, at a hearing, . . . they were astounded to see over a dozen government lawyers. The government wanted [the court] to deny the writ. . . .
Perles watched as Flatow’s head sank. He had brought the Iranians to court with the belief that he had the powerful will of President Clinton behind him. Instead it seemed he had now gained a formidable foe, one who was prepared to fight him with all the resources available to his administration. . . .
Some time later, the legal team received a tip from the State Department about an FBI investigation into the Alavi Foundation, a private charity that served as an Iranian front organization; perhaps damages could be awarded from its assets:
Perles and Fay sent a request to the Justice Department: would the government support their arguments about the Alavi Foundation in court? They never got a response.
Flatow saw the silence as a double-cross: they had been led to the Alavi Foundation by the government, which then refused to go the next step and give them proof that would win the case. The proceedings revealed how cautiously the administration was protecting its relations with Iran.
It was not until 2000, after multiple interventions by Congress, that Perles and Fay were able to obtain a settlement for their client.