In Swap, Iran Frees White, U.S. Releases Taheri

On June 4, Iran released Michael White, an American who had been detained for nearly two years. The U.S. Navy veteran was arrested on unspecified charges in July 2018 while visiting his girlfriend in Iran. In March 2019, White was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the supreme leader and 10 years for posting a private photograph on social media. In March 2020, White – an immunocompromised cancer patient – was released from prison on medical furlough and transferred to a hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.

Joanne White announced her son’s release in a statement. “For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare. I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home,” she said. White thanked the Trump Administration, the State Department and Swiss diplomats for their efforts. She also thanked former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, family spokesperson Jon Franks, attorney Mark Zaid and Montel Williams for their assistance. Richardson met with senior Iranian officials regularly to secure her son’s release. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he was “pleased that Iran was constructive” in working on White’s case, but he urged Tehran to do more. “The United States continues to call for the release of U.S. citizens Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, who have been wrongfully detained in Iran for far too long, and to provide a full accounting of the fate of Robert Levinson.” Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, died in Iranian custody. In a tweet, President Trump pledged to press for the release of all Americans detained abroad. 

Related material: "Detainees in Iran and the U.S."

 

Michael White’s health had been a growing concern since 2019. In August, Swiss diplomats were granted permission to visit him in prison. The Swiss were told that prison doctors removed melanoma from his back earlier that month. White continued to have “medical issues” related to his cancer and previous chemotherapy treatments, according to the Swiss embassy in Tehran.

On March 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iran to release “all wrongfully detained Americans being held in Iran.” He warned that the United States would hold Iran accountable if any of the American prisoners died from coronavirus, which had spread to at least three Iranian prisons by February 25. In March 2020, White was temporarily released on medical furlough with COVID-19 symptoms. He was admitted to an Iranian hospital and transferred to a hotel after his condition improved.

 

Iran released White two days after the United States deported Iranian scientist Sirous Asgari back to Iran. 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. Asgari, 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. Issues with his passport and the limited availability of flights due to COVID-19 delayed his return to Iran.

In May, 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. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), denied suggestions by Iranian officials that Asgari’s case was connected to Michael White.

On June 2, U.S. and Iranian officials denied that a swap was underway after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad 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.

On June 4, Zarif implied that White’s release was part of a swap involving another Iranian detained in the United States, Dr. Majid Taheri, also known as Matteo Taerri. In 2018, the Florida-based dermatologist was charged with violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Prosecutors said he tried to export a filter to Iran that could be used for chemical and biological warfare. But Taerri, who also holds U.S. citizenship, claimed it was for vaccine research. The government also accused him of organizing several bank transfers below the $10,000 threshold that would have required reporting under the Bank Secrecy Act. Taerri pleaded guilty but was freed on bond pending his sentence due to concerns about his health and vulnerability to COVID-19. 

Taheri’s lawyer, Steven Paul Berne, said that his client was conditionally released from custody to home incarceration earlier in 2020 while the deal was being finalized. “I can’t speak to how he was chosen [for the deal] but we’ve been negotiating with the Iranian government and the State Department for many months,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

 

The Justice Department withdrew its request to hold Taerri in March due to talks with Iran about releasing White. “The United States government and the government of Iran have been negotiating the release of a U.S. citizen held in Iranian custody,” said federal prosecutor Tracia King, according to the Associated Press. On June 4, Taheri was released as White flew from Iran to Switzerland. His lawyer said he would visit family and seek medical treatment in Iran before turning to the United States. Taheri arrived in Iran on June 8. “If the possibility of exchanging prisoners exists, we have the readiness to free the rest of the individuals who are imprisoned and return them to the country,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi told state-controlled media

The following are statements from Joanne White, the Richardson Center and Babak Namazi with additional background on White’s case.

 

Statement by Joanne White, Mother of Michael White

“For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare. I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home.”

“I am incredibly grateful to the Administration, especially the team at the State Department for their work on Michael’s case and I owe the Swiss Diplomats who have worked so hard to keep Michael safe a debt I can never repay. Outside of Government, I’d like to thank Gov. Bill Richardson for repeatedly raising Michael’s case with Iranian officials and delivering my personal pleas for my son’s freedom.”

“Throughout this nightmare, I have been blessed by the kindness of others. Very early on, a former hostage connected me with Jonathan Franks. Jonathan has been by my side every step of the way and I am very grateful to Montel Williams for making it possible for him to spend so much time working on Michael’s case. I also want to thank Mark Zaid who generously agreed to represent me pro bono. Mark’s advice has been invaluable to me and I know he will find a way to get justice for my son.”

“My prayers are with the Namazi and Tahbaz families and the families of so many other wrongfully detained Americans around the world.”

“We understand that there is great interest in Michael’s story. In time, Michael will tell it himself, his way. Until then, we’d like to respectfully ask that the media respect our family’s privacy.”

 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

We are bringing another American home. Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been wrongfully jailed in Iran for nearly two years, has been released. He is now on his way back to the United States, where we look forward to reuniting him with his family. I commend U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook for negotiating Mr. White’s release with the Iranians. I thank the Swiss government and the work of our diplomats for facilitating this successful diplomacy.

While we are pleased that Iran was constructive in this matter, there is more work to do. The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones. The United States continues to call for the release of U.S. citizens Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, who have been wrongfully detained in Iran for far too long, and to provide a full accounting of the fate of Robert Levinson.
 

The Richardson Center

Governor Bill Richardson and the Richardson Center are excited and relieved that Michael White has been released by Iran and is returning home to the United States. Governor Richardson has been working for over a year on behalf of Michael's mother, Joanne, to secure her son's release. Governor Richardson worked in close cooperation with Jon Franks of Montel Media, and the team representing Michael White, who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

“This should have and could have been done earlier, but I am glad and relieved that Mike is on his way home to get treated and rejoin Joanne and his family,” said Governor Richardson. “COVID-19 presents countries around the world, including our own, with an unprecedented challenge. The health and wellbeing of prisoners are the responsibility of the country holding them.”

In the course of these negotiations, Governor Richardson met with senior Iranian officials regularly, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Ambassador of Iran to the United Nations Majid Ravanchi. The negotiations were complicated, especially given the high tensions and exchange of violence between the U.S. and Iran in recent months.

With the global outbreak of COVID-19 and its impact on Iran, getting Michael released became an even more urgent matter, as his pre-existing medical conditions made him extremely vulnerable to the disease. Michael was moved from a prison and transferred to a hotel, but remained on medical furlough and in Iranian custody. Following his diagnosis, he was admitted to an Iranian hospital, and then released back to the hotel room. Governor Richardson and the Richardson Center worked diligently with senior Iranian officials to arrange his release.

Securing Michael White’s release as well as others involve multifaceted efforts and negotiations, relying on personal relations and respect. Governor Richardson and the Richardson Center want to thank the Qatari Government for their partnership in helping secure the release of the wrongfully detained. The Qataris efforts, and those of others, often goes understated and thus less known to the American public.

“There are American prisoners in other countries impacted by COVID-19, such as Tomeu Vadell in Venezuela, and Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed in Russia,” said Governor Richardson. “We are working with governments around the world to help unburden them of this responsibility by medically evacuating these Americans and bringing them back home.”

 

Statement by Babak Namazi, Son of Baquer Namazi and Brother of Siamak Namazi, American Hostages in Iran

We are very happy for the family of Michael White, which has finally seen an end to the terrible injustice of his imprisonment and will shortly welcome him home.  Every hostage that gets released is a victory for humanity.

At the same time, it is extremely hard for my family to understand how a third prisoner swap or release has taken place which has not included my family and other American hostages unjustly held in Iran.  My brother Siamak Namazi remains in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, despite Iran having furloughed 100,000 other prisoners due to COVID-19 pandemic.  Next month marks 5 years that Siamak has been held as a hostage in Iran and he is the longest held American Iranian hostage. 

In addition, my 84-year-old father Baquer Namazi is out of prison but still very sick and not allowed to leave Iran despite his frail condition and need for urgent medical attention.  How much should one family have to bear and what will it take to finally get my loved ones home?

 

Michael White's Case

U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, 46, from Imperial Beach, California, was arrested on unspecified charges in late July 2018 while visiting his girlfriend in Iran. In March 2019, White was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the supreme leader and 10 years posting a private photograph publicly.

White arrived in Iran on July 9, 2018 and never made it onto his return flight on July 27, 2018, according to his mother, Joanne White. She last spoke with him on July 13, 2018; she filed a missing-person report when Michael did not return on his scheduled flight. In December 2018, the State Department informed her that White was being held in an Iranian prison and that U.S. officials were seeking access to him through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has provided consular services for Americans since 1980.

On March 11, 2019, an Iranian prosecutor said White had been sentenced, but he did not elaborate on the charges. An attorney for the family, Mark Zaid, later said that he was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly insulting the supreme leader and 10 years for posting a private photograph on social media. Zaid said that he believed the sentences would run concurrently.

In August 2019, Swiss diplomats were granted permission to visit White in prison. The Swiss were told that prison doctors removed melanoma from his back earlier that month. White "continues to have medical issues” related to his cancer and previous chemotherapy treatments, according to a report from the Swiss embassy. He is currently awaiting a ruling on his appeal. 

In January 2020, White's mother released audio from a phone conversation she had with him in prison. He alleged that he had been subject to torture and inhuman conditions. "They've done everything to press me," White said. "They put me in isolation. They subjected me to torture conditions—deprivation of food and water numerous times."

 

On March 19, the State Department announced that White was temporarily released from prison on a medical furlough. He was transferred to a hotel but remained in Iranian custody. His release was facilitated by the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Iran. White was required to remain in Iran throughout his furlough. “He’s in very good spirits. But he has some preexisting health conditions that are going to require some attention,” said U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook.  

 

On March 25, White was admitted to a hospital ward for coronavirus patients after experiencing fever, fatigue, a cough and shortness of breath. White’s family said that he "is an immunocompromised cancer patient and his situation is urgent." They called for an immediate humanitarian medical evacuation to the United States to receive medical treatment. In early May, Switzerland asked Iran to extend White’s medical furlough. White was eventually transferred back to the hotel after his condition improved. 

On May 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked Switzerland for its efforts. “Our gratitude also goes out to Switzerland, the United States protecting power in Iran for now four decades, for its efforts to extend Michael White’s medical furlough and seeking humanitarian furloughs for Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz and bringing home all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained,” Pompeo told reporters at a news conference.

On June 4, Joanne White announced that her son had been released. “For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare. I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home,” she said. 

 

Sirous 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. 

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