Congressman On Prisoner Release: 'It's Really Become Personal For Us'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we hear from a Michigan congressman who's been fighting for the release of one of the American prisoners held in Iran - his constituent, Amir Hekmati. That fight, which he's been waging through much of his time in Congress, has now come to an end. Congressman Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat serving his second term, has done everything from pass out pamphlets on the House floor to meet with the Iranian foreign minister in an effort to secure the release of Hekmati, a former Marine who has the longest-held of the group just released. He was taken prisoner in Iran in 2011 after he visited for the first time to check on his grandmother. The congressman joins us now from the Detroit airport before he heads to Germany, where he plans to meet with Amir Hekmati. Congressman, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DAN KILDEE: Thank you very much. It's a great day.
MARTIN: I'm guessing this is probably an emotional day for you, too, having worked on this as long as you have and having been as close to the family as you have been.
KILDEE: It really is. And, you know, it started off as working on behalf of a constituent. And it's really turned into feeling like I'm trying to get one of my own family members back from Iran. It's really become personal for us.
MARTIN: Do you have any idea at this juncture why Amir was arrested? Do you feel any closer to an understanding of that now than you did when you first started?
KILDEE: No, it's pretty hard to predict what will cause Iran to take these sort of actions. In his case, the fact that he served as a United States Marine, born and raised in the United States but under their law was still considered an Iranian citizen, that's the logic that they used. But there's no - there was no evidence. There was no rational purpose for his arrest, just, unfortunately, he got caught up in what really was an international struggle between Iran and the rest of the world. And four and a half years later - finally, thank God - he's coming home.
MARTIN: Is it my understanding that the idea of swapping prisoners is something that surfaced in communications with Mr. Hekmati's family? Is that correct?
KILDEE: Yes. I mean, we talked back and forth. Of course, our position was we would do whatever we needed to do to get Amir home. He's a patriot. He wanted to be loyal to his country and always has been. At the end of the day, this is a very satisfactory result. And we support the president in his actions, and we're just so happy that Amir's coming home.
MARTIN: Well, you have to be aware that some of your congressional colleagues don't take the same view. They feel that this - in fact, a number of the Republican candidates for president have suggested that this actually increases the value of this kind of behavior of taking people - prisoner for - on various pretexts. And I just would like to know your reaction to that.
KILDEE: Obviously, I disagree with that. Diplomacy is always better than the other alternative. And it's easy for someone with no responsibility for American policy to sit back and second-guess decisions that are made in the real world with real struggles between nations. This is a case where diplomacy prevailed. And leaders like President Obama - who are willing to stand up and do what they think is right knowing that they're going to take shots from candidates for president - you know, that's the definition of leadership. And so far, what I've seen of those critics, they're really not demonstrating the kind of leadership that the office that they're seeking warrants.
MARTIN: I understand that you met at one point in New York with the Iranian foreign minister. What was that like?
KILDEE: It was - it was great. I mean, Samantha Power, our U.N. ambassador, invited me to sit with her for the speech made by Pope Francis. That was the ostensible purpose of my visit. But it was really to get a chance to have a discussion with Foreign Minister Zarif. And he knew who I was. He knew why I was there and, you know, we pressed very hard. The ongoing discussions, both the formal discussions that the administration held but also the informal process that myself and others were engaged in, I think was really important just so he knew and the Iranian people know that the United States government and its people take this case seriously. And we pressed that point at every opportunity, including with the foreign minister.
MARTIN: Do you happen to know how Mr. Hekmati is doing? I understand that you're on your way to see him. I assume you haven't spoken with him yet. Have you spoken with him yet?
KILDEE: No, I have not. I look forward to that. In fact, I've never met him, and I look forward to correcting that tomorrow. What we know - he's doing all right, he's lost weight in prison. It's obviously a terrible situation, Evin Prison, one of the worst of the world. So we expect that he'll have some difficulty making that adjustment, but we - we look forward to helping him do that. So it starts with a visit with his two sisters, his brother-in-law, myself tomorrow morning.
MARTIN: That was Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan, a Democrat, who joined us from the airport in Detroit before he heads to Germany to meet Amir Hekmati, a constituent of his who was just released from imprisonment in Iran, where he's been held since 2011. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KILDEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.