WASHINGTON -- A House Democrat who has led the congressional effort to bring home four Americans trapped in Iran has decided to vote in favor of the deal the Obama administration recently concluded to limit Iran's nuclear program.
"I've been engaged in evaluating the agreement, keeping myself open to any outcome. I had a meeting with the president last night at the White House. I've come to the conclusion that I think it's the best path forward," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) in an interview with The Huffington Post Thursday morning. Kildee plans to release an official statement on his position at 2 p.m. Thursday.
"Like any negotiated agreement, it can be scrutinized and criticized, and of course no negotiation results in everybody getting everything they think should be included, but the way I evaluate this agreement is against what I think the honest assessment of other alternatives is," Kildee continued. "I see the failure of this agreement as being a more treacherous path forward."
Kildee's announcement is key for the agreement to survive a congressional vote in September because he has been singularly vocal about the Americans trapped in Iran. One of the four hostages, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, is Kildee's constituent. In June, the lawmaker successfully persuaded the House to unanimously pass a bipartisan resolution calling on Iran to immediately release the captives. Kildee told Hekmati's family about his stance on the deal early Thursday morning, he said.
The deal's opponents continue to highlight its failure to bring home the Americans. Kildee's public support of the nuclear agreement is therefore a blow to their effort to smash the deal on the Hill.
There has been no major sign from Iran about the four Americans' fate following the announcement of the deal. Three of the captives -- Hekmati, Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian and pastor Saeed Abedini -- are accused of spying and threatening Iran's theocratic structure. Iranian law does not recognize them as Americans because all three hold Iranian citizenship as well, so they have been tried in Iran's opaque judicial system. The fourth American, former FBI operative Robert Levinson, has been missing since he was abducted while on a botched CIA mission in 2007 in the country. His captors remain unknown.
Kildee has repeatedly said he did not want the captives' fate to be tied to the outcome of the nuclear negotiations, echoing a message Hekmati wrote from his Iranian prison.
"We should never put the innocent Americans in the deal for two important reasons," Kildee said Thursday. "One, we would never want to tie the fate of these Americans to a negotiation that has an uncertain outcome. It wasn't clear that the agreement would be reached in the first place."
"It would also be dangerous for us to negotiate the freedom of innocent Americans by exchanging them for a provision in an agreement that deals with Iran's nuclear capabilities," he said. "We would have had to have given something. What would we have given?"
Still, the Americans' future would be much less certain in a world without an Iranian nuclear agreement, Kildee has said.
The captives' families have also welcomed the deal as a positive sign -- an Iran that is more engaged with the world, they say, is an Iran more likely to appreciate Washington's concerns and send the Americans home. The families have voiced their support as the deal has become trapped in Washington's partisan chaos and have stayed away from political efforts -- like those of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) -- to exploit the captive issue in order to tank the agreement.
President Barack Obama and his team are continuing to "press Iran very hard" about the Americans, Kildee said, adding that he received specifics about that process in his meeting with the president Wednesday night but was unable to share them.
While Kildee would have liked to see even tighter restrictions on Iran, he said he was confident that Obama's team -- led by Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman -- had reached the best agreement possible given Iran's own complex politics.
"We all would have preferred an agreement that had no termination date, for example... I had to weigh what I would have preferred to see against the likelihood of being able to get another agreement by going back to the negotiating table," Kildee said. "That's a theoretical agreement and I have to evaluate whether it's feasible."
The fate of the agreement remains "up in the air," Kildee said. Congress needs to approve or disapprove of it by Sept. 17. The deal's opponents hope to win enough support in Congress to override a guaranteed presidential veto of a disapproval.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday morning she was confident Democratic members would vote to support the president's veto if Republican majorities in the House and Senate push through a disapproval of the deal.
Kildee has listened to arguments from the deal's opponents, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in meetings Wednesday, he added.
"The greatest number of members have yet to make a final decision," Kildee said. "The reason I've been able to come to my conclusion at this juncture is that I have spent more time in the last two and a half years on Iran than any other single question because of Amir Hekmati."