In prisoner swap deal, Iran releases US veteran held for nearly two years

Iranian women walk in April 2020 in the northeastern city of Mashhad, where US Navy veteran Michael White had been held.
Iranian women walk in April 2020 in the northeastern city of Mashhad, where US Navy veteran Michael White had been held. © - ISNA/AFP/File

A US Navy veteran detained in Iran for nearly two years has been released and started making his way home as part of a prisoner deal involving an American-Iranian doctor prosecuted in the United States, American officials said Thursday.    

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The US special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, flew to Zurich to meet freed detainee Michael White of Imperial Beach, California. 

Iran's move to free White and the US decision to let the doctor, Majid Taheri, visit Iran, appeared a rare instance of US-Iranian cooperation, and a White House spokesman said White's release may lead to an opening in the bitter relationship.

Iran's foreign minister confirmed both moves.

White had been released from an Iranian prison in mid-March on medical furlough but had been held in Iran under Swiss custody. Switzerland looks after US interests with Tehran because the United States and Iran lack diplomatic relations.

President Donald Trump confirmed the news on Twitter, saying, "I am to happy announce that Navy Veteran, Michael White, who has been detained by Iran for 683 days, is on a Swiss plane that just left Iranian Airspace. We expect him to be home with his family in America very soon."

Separately, Taheri's lawyer said the Iranian-American physician will visit family in Iran and seek medical treatment before returning to the United States as part of a US-Iranian agreement that included White's release.

A person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said White's release followed several months of discussions between the two countries.

The two countries are at bitter odds over US penalties imposed after Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and over the killing by American forces of a top Iranian general in Iraq at the beginning of this year.

“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely in American custody and on his way home,” White’s mother, Joanne White, said in a statement. She thanked the State Department and Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and onetime New Mexico governor, for raising her son’s case with the Iranians.

Richardson, who met with Iran's foreign minister and ambassador to the UN about the case, said in a statement that the “release should have and could have been done earlier, but I am glad and relieved that Mike is on his way home to get treated." White had been diagnosed with coronavirus, but has been recovering.

'Kidnap-for-ransom scheme'

White was detained by Iranian authorities in July 2018 while visiting a woman he had met online and fallen in love with. He was convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private information online, and was sentenced to a decade in prison.

“Simply put, the ‘charges' against Michael were pretexts for a state-sponsored kidnap-for-ransom scheme,” family spokesman Jon Franks said in a statement Thursday. “The tragedy of this case is Michael's only only crime was falling in love with Iran and its people for whom he cares deeply.”

Despite widespread speculation, White’s release was not related to the deportation to Iran this week of Iranian scientist Sirios Asghari, the officials said. White's release was predicated on another prisoner deal, the details of which were to be released later Thursday.

In March, White was released from prison on a medical furlough as Iran struggled to cope with the coronavirus outbreak. White was turned over to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in Iran. He was among tens of thousands of prisoners granted medical furloughs by Iran, which was one of the first countries to be hit hard by the pandemic.

White’s mother told The Associated Press at that time that she was especially concerned about her son’s health because of his battles with cancer, and Richardson called on Iran to grant him an immediate humanitarian evacuation.

Release of hostages a priority

Trump administration officials have repeatedly said that they consider the release of American hostages and detainees to be a priority, and in recent months stepped up public pressure demands to release White.

Last month, for instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned White by name and thanked Switzerland for its work on arranging the medical furlough. Pompeo also urged Iran to release other Americans held there, including Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz.

Namazi is an Iranian-American national who has been convicted of collaborating with a hostile power. Tahbaz, an Iranian with US and British citizenship, was part of a group of environmental activists sentenced on espionage charges.

In her statement, White said her prayers were with their families and "the families of so many other wrongfully detained Americans around the world.”

In December, Iran released a Princeton University scholar held for three years on espionage charges, widely disputed, in exchange for the release of a detained Iranian scientist.

Hook, the US special envoy, also flew to Zurich to oversee the trade of Chinese-American scholar Xiyue Wang for Massoud Soleimani, who had faced a federal trial in Georgia over charges he violated sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran.

In March, the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran 13 years ago, said they had been informed that US officials had determined that Levinson was probably dead. Officials have not said how they reached that conclusion.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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