By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Twenty U.S. citizens who won more than $1.5 billion in court judgments against Iran for its support of militant attacks sued the U.S. government on Wednesday to try and prevent it from lifting sanctions on Tehran under an international nuclear deal.
The lawsuit in federal court in New York said that unfreezing Iranian funds would rob the victims of the attacks in Israel and the Gaza Strip of “their last remaining opportunity to pressure Iran to satisfy their judgments.”
The plaintiffs, who have not yet received any money, include victims of several attacks between 1995 and 2006 carried out by groups backed by Iran - Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. The lawsuit names the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department as defendants.
The White House declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman for the Department of Justice did not immediately comment.
The U.S.-led July 14 accord between Iran and six world powers would lift some of the harshest economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for a verification program intended to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.
Congress has until Sept. 17 to approve or reject the pact. President Barack Obama delivered a speech on Wednesday defending the deal and urging lawmakers to vote in its favor, despite fierce opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Wednesday's lawsuit was brought by some of the same lawyers who in February won a $218 million jury verdict against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization for victims of militant attacks in Israel.
The Palestinian groups are appealing. A lawyer for the groups said in court in July that the judgment, which is automatically tripled under federal law, could "be the end of the Palestinian Authority."
The U.S. government has said it may weigh in on the case and would decide by Aug. 10.
(Editing by Grant McCool)