Iran released U.S. Navy veteran Michael White on Thursday, after almost two years in prison. Just days earlier, the United States had extradited Sirous Asgari, an Iranian scientist who was acquitted in November of industrial espionage. At least three U.S. citizens remain in Iranian custody despite this being the second American freed in the last six months.
Prosecutors had charged Asgardi, a material scientist from the University of Tehran, with stealing trade secrets from Case Western Reserve University in 2016, where the college had been commissioned by the U.S. Navy to develop a new anti-corrosive stainless steel.
Iranian authorities arrested White while visiting his online Iranian girlfriend in July 2018. The government sentenced him to at least ten years in prison for insulting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and posting a private picture on social media. According to reports, White’s health deteriorated severely while in prison, and his mother was “worried he’ll die over there.” The veteran had undergone cancer surgery in September 2019 while serving his sentence to remove a melanoma from his back. He contracted Covid-19 in prison in March.
At the time of his release, White was on medical furlough from prison and in the care of the Swiss embassy, which handles U.S. interests in Iran.
Despite the release of two prisoners in such a short time, both countries denied a quid pro quo prisoner swap. “The United States has tried to deport Sirous Asgari since December 2019, but the Iranian government repeatedly has held up the process. As the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed today, Mr. Asgari is not and has never been a participant in any prisoner swap with Iran,” said Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokesperson, earlier this week.
The Iranian government has repeatedly arrested foreign nationals for arbitrary durations on dubious charges. The government often refuses to give details of the cases against the foreigners and provides little or no due process. Many have been charged with espionage.
At least three U.S. citizens remain in Iranian custody. Iranian-Americans Siamak Namazi and his father Baquar Namazi were charged with “collusion with an enemy state,” and sentenced to 10 years in prison. British and American citizen Morad Tahbaz was also sentenced to 10 years for “contacts with an enemy state.” British-Australian citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert was detained shortly after Iran invited her to the country in September 2018. She has been in solitary confinement since and reportedly has attempted suicide three times.
Chinese-American researcher Xiyue Wang, arrested in March 2016 on espionage charges, was released in December 2019. Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani, who had been indicted in the U.S. on charges of espionage, was released back to Tehran the same month.