WASHINGTON (AP) — A 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, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, flew to Zurich with a doctor to meet freed detainee Michael White, whose mother said “the nightmare is over” now that her son is out of custody.
White’s release was part of an agreement involving a Florida-based, Iranian-American doctor prosecuted by the Justice Department, and followed months of quiet negotiations over prisoners. The two countries are at bitter odds over U.S. penalties imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. 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 U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and onetime New Mexico governor, for raising her son’s case with the Iranians.
As White flew to Zurich, prosecutors in Atlanta were completing the U.S. part of the arrangement by asking a federal judge to sentence Florida dermatologist Matteo Taerri to time served on a conviction stemming from 2018 charges that he had violated U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“There are numerous foreign policy interests that are furthered by this particular sentence,” U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May said in granting the government’s request.
Taerri was charged with attempting to export a filter to Iran that he said was for vaccine research but that U.S. authorities said required a license because it could be used for chemical and biological warfare purposes. He was also accused of structuring a series of bank deposits below the $10,000 limit that triggers reporting requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act.
He pleaded guilty last December and has already served months behind bars, but in April was permitted to be free on bond pending his sentence after arguing that his weakening health made him susceptible to the coronavirus.
The Justice Department had initially sought to have him held but withdrew the request in March based on what it said were significant foreign policy interests.
“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. “This case, and more specifically the sentencing recommendation, is directly related to these negotiations.”
A citizen of Iran and the U.S., Taerri is permitted as part of his sentence to remain in the U.S. and to travel abroad.
White’s release was cheered by Trump, whose administration has said it considers the release of detainees and hostages a priority. “I will never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas!” he tweeted.
White, of Imperial Beach, California, 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 instead on the Taerri case.
In March, White was released from prison on a medical furlough as Iran struggled to cope with the coronavirus outbreak and turned over to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. 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.
Richardson 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 COVID-19, but has been recovering.
White’s mother has told The Associated Press that she was especially concerned about her son’s health because of his battles with cancer.
Trump administration officials in recent months stepped up public pressure 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.
The U.S. has also called on Iran to release other Americans who are still jailed. Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American, remains in Iran’s Evin prison after being convicted of collaborating with the United States — charges a U.N. panel has said are bogus. Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian with U.S. and British citizenship, was part of a group of environmental activists sentenced on espionage charges and remains in custody.
Namazi’s brother, Babak, said he was happy for the White family but distressed that his brother was not released. He also noted that his 84-year-old father, Baquer, who was also convicted, is out of prison but has not been permitted to leave Iran despite his poor health.
In December, Iran released Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American Princeton University scholar held for three years on widely disputed espionage charges, in exchange for the release of a detained Iranian scientist.
In March, the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran 13 years ago, said they had been informed that U.S. officials had determined that Levinson was probably dead.