ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has a reason for aggressively opposing the nuclear deal with Iran — and it’s personal.
Neither his foreign policy adviser nor a member of his inner circle has shaped the Republican presidential candidate’s position. Walker’s deep distrust for Iran instead comes from his long friendship with one of the Americans held hostage for 444 days more than three decades ago.
Kevin Hermening was a 20-year-old Marine sergeant stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 when militant Iran students overran the building and captured him and 51 others. Thirty-five years after his release, Hermening has become the face of Walker’s foreign policy, as the two-term governor works to build credibility on a high-stakes issue heading into the 2016 presidential contest.
Hermening was in the crowd as Walker formally launched his presidential campaign this past week, and the candidate acknowledged him by name with a salute and a nod.
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“He knows that Iran is not a place we should be doing business with,” Walker said in his speech. “We need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on day one, put in place crippling economic sanctions and convince our allies to do the same.”
The cameo during Walker’s announcement may have just been the beginning.
As foreign policy emerges as a leading issue in the 2016 election, Walker plans to keep featuring Hermening in the campaign — a role Hermening gladly accepts.
“I don’t think the governor needed to be in the cell with me in order to understand that that’s not how you treat people, and that you shouldn’t reward people with that behavior,” Hermening said, as he described opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said months of coverage of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran have stirred up emotions for him and his fellow captives, and he criticized the deal as too soft on Iran and lacking much-needed reimbursement for the 52 hostages and their families.
Under the intricate deal between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers, Iran has pledged to curb its nuclear program for a decade in exchange for potentially hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of relief from international sanctions. Many penalties could be lifted by the end of the year.
All the Republican presidential rivals have come out against the pact. But only Walker’s opposition is drawn from someone who was directly involved in an event that determined U.S.-Iranian relations.
Politics brought Walker and Hermening together a quarter century ago.
It was either 1990 or 1991 —Hermening can’t remember which year — when a fresh-out-of-college Walker helped his unsuccessful campaign for a seat in Wisconsin’s state assembly. Their roles soon reversed. As Walker began his political ascent, Hermening stayed involved in local party politics while running a financial planning firm.
Though he calls the governor a friend, the pair only see each other once a year — if that — at party functions.
Those 444 days Hermening was held captive are still deeply personal to the 56-year-old from Wausau, Wisconsin. He’s upbeat now about even the worst parts of the experience. Even the 43 days he spent in solitary confinement “paled in comparison” to the experiences of some of the other hostages, still wrestling with their memories of their time in captivity, he said. At least one took his own life.
Before Walker’s national rise, Hermening most often shared his tale of captivity with church groups and high school history classes.
His audience may grow dramatically. Walker’s staff is still working out the details of Hermening’s involvement in the campaign, including whether he’ll be paid. But he is expected to be regularly featured.
Regardless of his role, Hermening’s story has clearly impressed Walker.
At last week’s announcement, Walker reminisced about the days he and his brother tied yellow ribbons to a tree outside their house, anxiously awaiting Hermening and his fellow captives’ return home.
Walker opened up about Hermening’s influence on his world view during a campaign stop in South Carolina last week.
“Kevin Hermening is someone I’ve known for years,” Walker said. “He’s reminded me powerfully that Iran has not changed much from the day he and the other 51 hostages were released.”
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Lexington, South Carolina, contributed to this report.