Iran Frees Navy Veteran Held for Two Years

Iran Frees Navy Veteran Held for Two Years

Iran Frees Navy Veteran Held for Two Years

Iran Frees Navy Veteran Held for Two Years

Iran on Thursday freed Michael R. White, a Navy veteran whose nearly two-year-long incarceration had become another sore point in the country’s increasingly tense relationship with the United States.

Mr. White was flown out of the country a day after American immigration authorities returned an Iranian scientist to Iran. Both men had been infected with the coronavirus while in custody.

Mr. White’s mother, Joanne, announced in a statement that her son was on his way home. President Trump later tweeted that Mr. White was safely out of Iranian airspace on a Swiss government jet.

“For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare,” Ms. White said in the statement, referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home.”

It was not immediately clear where he would arrive in the United States or when he might speak about his ordeal. “In time, Michael will tell it himself, his way,” his mother said in the statement. “Until then, we’d like to respectfully ask that the media respect our family’s privacy.”

The release of Mr. White, 48, a cancer patient, came amid intensifying speculation that he would be freed following the release of the Iranian scientist, Sirous Asgari. Mr. Asgari arrived in Tehran on Wednesday.

American officials had insisted the two cases were not linked. But Iranian officials had suggested last month that once the scientist was back in Iran, they would look favorably at permitting Mr. White to go home.

The State Department did not immediately respond to queries about Mr. White’s release. Mr. Trump said on Twitter that Mr. White would be “home with his family in America very soon.”

For Mr. Trump, the news of Mr. White’s release offered a diversion from the multiple crises that have rocked his administration — his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the widespread protests against the police killing of George Floyd and other African-Americans, and his bellicose threat to deploy the military to crush urban unrest.

Mr. White, of Imperial City, Calif., was arrested in July 2018 while visiting an Iranian woman, whom his family said he had met on the internet, in the northeast city of Mashhad. He was later convicted of privacy violations and of insulting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Iranian prosecutors also suggested he was a spy.

His mother did not know he had been imprisoned until months afterward. She repeatedly called on the Iranian authorities to free him, insisting he had done nothing wrong and that his health was in danger. Mr. White had been treated for throat cancer before he went to Iran.

He was furloughed from prison a few months ago when the coronavirus became a crisis in Iran. Swiss diplomats, who act on behalf of the United States in Iran, have been looking after his case.

The prisoner issue is especially contentious between the United States and Iran, which broke diplomatic relations 40 years ago after the Islamic revolution. Each country has repeatedly accused the other of holding their citizens for political reasons.

At least three other Americans, all with dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, are known to be in custody in Iran. They are Siamak Namazi, a business executive, his father, Baquer Namazi, a former Unicef diplomat, and Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist. All were accused of collaboration with the United States.

Ms. White acknowledged the remaining prisoners in her statement about her son’s release.

“My prayers are with the Namazi and Tahbaz families and the families of so many other wrongfully detained Americans around the world.,” she said in her statement.

Ms. White also expressed thanks to the Swiss diplomats and to Bill Richardson, who has specialized in securing the release of Americans held overseas in the years since he served as a United Nations ambassador and New Mexico governor. Mr. Richardson’s foundation said in a statement that he had acted on behalf of the White family in negotiations with Iranian officials that relied on “personal relations and respect.”

The release of Mr. White also was welcomed by Babak Namazi, who has been pressing for the release of his brother, Siamak, and father, Baquer, for years. But he also expressed disappointment.

“Every hostage that gets released is a victory for humanity,” Mr. Namazi said in a statement. Still, he said, “how much should one family have to bear and what will it take to finally get my loved ones home?”

Mr. White is the second American to be freed by Iran since President Trump took office. Although relations between the United States and Iran have worsened during his administration, both sides have sent signals about possible prisoner exchanges.

In December, Iran freed Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student charged with spying, in a swap for an Iranian scientist who had been convicted in the United States on charges of violating American trade sanctions.

Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

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