On June 2, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that Sirous Asgari, a scientist who had been imprisoned in the United States, was on a plane back to Iran. “Congratulations to his wife and his esteemed family,” he wrote on Instagram. Dr. Asgari was indicted in 2016 on charges of stealing trade secrets related to research he had done at Case Western Reserve University in 2012 and 2013. The scientist, an engineer who specializes in metals and materials, had been working on a project for the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research to create anti-corrosive stainless steel.
In November 2019, U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin ruled that the government’s evidence against Asgari was insufficient and dismissed the charges. But he remained in custody awaiting deportation. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claimed that Asgari could not be put on a flight to Iran because Tehran had refused to provide him with a valid passport. When he finally did get a passport in February 2020, the pandemic limited flights. DHS tried to put Asgari on planes to Iran on March 10, March 18, March 23, April and May 1, but each was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. In the meantime, Asgari developed COVID-19 in late April while in detention in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Winnfield, Louisiana, according to his family and lawyers.
Coronavirus-positive scientist to return home from U.S. jail: Tehran— Tehran Times (@TehranTimes79) May 4, 2020
Sirous Asgari, an Iranian scientist imprisoned in the United States who has contracted the novel coronavirus, will return home soon, according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry. pic.twitter.com/G2hHwh51gP
U.S. and Iranian media had reported a potential release of detainees by both countries, but the United States insisted that Asgari's case would not be part of a swap. Cuccinelli denied suggestions by Iranian officials that Asgari’s case was connected to Michael White, a U.S. national detained in Iran since 2018. In March 2020, White was temporarily released from prison on a medical furlough and admitted to a hospital for COVID-19 treatment.
On May 11, Cuccinelli blamed Iran for not repatriating its nationals. “We have 11 of your citizens who are illegal aliens who we have been trying to return to your country. You suddenly SAY you want them back, so how about you send a charter plane over and we’ll return all 11 at once?” Cuccinelli tweeted in a message to Zarif.
On June 2, U.S. and Iranian officials denied that a swap was underway after Zarif announced that Asgari was en route home. “There is no truth to the rumors of Mr. Asgari’s exchange for another person,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Seyed Abbas Mousavi. Cuccinelli again denied any connection between Asgari and White. “Asgari and White have never been related. We have been trying to deport Asghari (sic) since last year, being stalled every step of the way by the Iranian government,” he tweeted. “We wish Iran was so enthusiastic to get its illegal nationals back as they would have us all believe ... so how about the Iranians take the other 10 currently in custody with removal orders? You haven’t heard much about that, have you? If #Zarif wasn’t blowing smoke, they would’ve already made arrangements for these other 10. But instead, they stall.”
The following is background information on Asgari’s case.
Asgari, an Iranian scientist specializing in metals and batteries, has long-standing ties to the United States. In 1997, he received his Ph.D. in engineering from Drexel University in Pennsylvania. His children continued to live in the United States after he returned to Iran. In 2011, Asgari traveled from Iran to Ohio to meet with faculty from Case Western Reserve University. He returned to Iran. In 2012, he came back to the United States to work on a project at the university sponsored by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research. The project's goal was to produce anti-corrosive stainless steel. Asgari signed a non-disclosure agreement on the project before returning to Iran in April 2013.
In April 2016, Asgari was charged under sealed indictment by federal prosecutors with stealing research from Case Western Reserve University in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran; he was also charged with committing visa and wire fraud.
In mid-2017, Asgari returned to the United States with his wife to visit his children. He was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately on arrival. Prosecutors alleged that Asgari exchanged emails with students and engineers in Iran that included technical information on the project. They said that the information he provided -- previously possessed only by one U.S. company-- led to the development of a project proposal for Iran’s petrochemical industry. Prosecutors also said that Asgari had traveled to the United States on tourist visas, instead of work permits, to do research at Case Western Reserve University.
In November 2019, District Judge James Gwin dismissed the charges against Asgari. He said that the government’s evidence was insufficient. But Asgari remained in custody awaiting deportation. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), blamed Iran for the delay. He claimed that Tehran had refused to provide Asgari with a valid passport. When Asgari finally received a passport in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic limited flights. DHS purchased tickets for flights to Iran for March 10, March 18, March 23, April and May 1, but each was cancelled due to the risk of COVID-19 infection.
In March 2020, Asgari raised concerns about “inhumane” conditions at Winn correctional center in Louisiana, where he was being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He said that detainees were trying to get deported because they were so fearful of catching the COVID-19 virus in the overcrowded prison. An ICE spokesman said that only two cases had been confirmed at the facility. On April 27, Asgari tested positive for the coronavirus while in detention, according to his family and lawyers. Asgari reportedly had a severe cough and fever for days before being tested. “It makes sense to send me to the hospital as soon as possible. I don’t trust them at all,” Asgari said. “If something happens, they are not fast responders … I prefer to leave this dirty place.”
On June 2, Foreign Minister Zarif said that Asgari had been released and was on plane on his way back to Iran. “Congratulations to his wife and his esteemed family,” Zarif wrote in an Instagram post.