Iran says scientist back home from US after prisoner swap

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Tehran (AFP)

An Iranian scientist returned home Monday after his release from a US jail in what state media said was a prisoner exchange Tehran hopes can be repeated between the arch-foes.

Majid Taheri -- an Iranian-American who had been working at a clinic in Tampa, Florida -- had been detained in the United States for 16 months.

He was freed on Thursday as Iran released US Navy veteran Michael White, who had been detained in the Islamic republic since his arrest in July 2018.

Upon his arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport, Taheri was greeted by deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari.

State media published pictures of the pair speaking to journalists.

"I hope to see the release of (other Iranians imprisoned abroad) in the near future," Ansari was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency, adding his ministry would do its best to achieve this.

Ansari said the scientist was freed after months of efforts by the ministry in coordination with Switzerland, whose embassy in Tehran handles US interests.

Taheri for his part thanked Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

"I thank the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and dear officials, including Mr. Zarif, who worked hard, and other officials who took months to help release me, as an Iranian physician accused of circumventing US sanctions on medicine," he was quoted as saying.

Taheri was the second scientist to have returned to Iran from the United States in the past week, after Cyrus Asgari flew home on Wednesday.

A US federal judge issued an order to free Taheri on time served.

Taheri had been accused of violating US sanctions by sending a technical item to Iran and in December pleaded guilty to charges he violated financial reporting requirements by depositing $277,344 at a bank, repeatedly showing up with loose cash, according to court documents.

- 'Unfair and false' -

On Monday he rejected accusations against him as "unfair and false", according to Iran's Fars news agency.

"I was helping the University of Tehran to develop a cancer vaccine, especially for women," he was quoted as saying.

Iran-US tensions have soared in recent years as President Donald Trump has pursued a campaign of "maximum pressure" against America's sworn enemy.

Since unilaterally withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Trump has hit the Islamic republic with sweeping sanctions.

The two sides appeared to come to the brink of a direct conflict for the second time in less than a year in January, when Trump ordered an air strike that killed one of Iran's top generals, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad.

Iran retaliated by firing a barrage of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq, but Trump opted against responding militarily. No American soldiers were killed by the missiles.

Following White's release, Trump voiced hope for progress with Iran.

"Thank you to Iran, it shows a deal is possible!" the US president wrote on Twitter.

Three more US citizens are known to be imprisoned in Iran. All are of Iranian origin, so Tehran considers them its own citizens.