In what the Donald Trump administration has avoided framing as a prisoner swap but came the same day an Iranian-American doctor was released in the United States, Navy veteran Michael White was freed from Iranian custody Thursday. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who played a key role in the negotiations, says the timing was no coincidence.
“It may not necessarily be a prisoner swap per se, but it’s a joint humanitarian effort on both sides that is not concurrent,” Richardson told Al-Monitor. “It shows hopefully the possibility of more joint releases like this.”
White had been jailed in Iran since July 2018 after posting a photo of himself on social media and being convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader. In March, the 48-year-old cancer survivor contracted the novel coronavirus in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Amid concerns over a wider outbreak in its detention facilities, the Iranian government released White on temporary medical furlough, and he’s since remained in the custody of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
On Thursday, White was flown out of the country by Switzerland, which represents American interests in Iran. He returned to the United States with Brian Hook, the president’s special envoy for Iran.
“We will not rest until we bring every American wrongfully detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted. “We are pleased the Iranian government has been constructive in this matter.”
As US officials celebrated White’s release Thursday, their Iranian counterparts announced their own news. Javad Zarif, the country’s foreign minister, tweeted that Majid Taheri, a Florida-based Iranian-American doctor convicted of sanctions violations, had also been released from US custody.
“We achieved humanitarian swap *despite* your subordinates' efforts, @realDonaldTrump,” Zarif wrote.
Taheri was one of two prisoners Iran received from the United States this week. On Wednesday, Sirous Asgari arrived in Tehran after being held for months at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Louisiana. The materials science professor was acquitted in November 2019 of trying to steal federal trade secrets while working at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Kenneth Cuccinell denied Asgari’s release was related to White. He told the Associated Press the US Justice Department had been trying to deport Asgari since his acquittal, but Iran only provided a passport for him in late February.
But Taheri, the dual citizen released to Iran Thursday, did come up in talks with the Iranians, Richardson told Al-Monitor. On behalf of White's family, the former governor says he discussed the veteran's possible release over the course of the last nine months with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi. Richardson also held talks twice with Zarif, meeting once in Doha and once in New York City.
About six weeks ago, Richardson said the Iranians informed him that they wanted Taheri in exchange for White, information he says he passed along to both the US State Department and the White House.
The US State Department and the Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately return a request for comment.
The diplomatic maneuvering to bring White home came amid months of escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. In recent months, Iran-backed militias have launched deadly rocket attacks on American interests in Iraq, and Iranian vessels have come dangerously close to US warships in the Persian Gulf.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has pressed on with its campaign of sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear ambitions and rights violations. In a tweet Friday, Trump called on Iran to seize the moment and enter into a new, harsher nuclear deal than the Obama-era accord the president withdrew the United States from in 2018.
“I think some of these negotiations were complicated by the enormous tension in the relationship,” Richardson said. “I think it seems to be getting worse every day.”
He went on, "There’s a little window on humanitarian issues that exists between the US and Iran that have allowed these releases to happen."
At least three Americans are left in Iranian custody. Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian environmentalist with US and British citizenship, is serving a 10-year sentence for espionage charges. Businessman Siamak Namazi is held in Evin prison on trumped-up charges and his 84-year-old father Baquer Namazi, a former UN official, is out on medical furlough but unable to leave the country.
Over Twitter Thursday, Babak Namazi questioned why his brother and father, dual Iranian-American citizens, haven’t yet been part of any release deal.
“We are very happy for the family of Michael White,” Namazi said in a statement. “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.”
Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans were freed in a prisoner exchange the same day the landmark nuclear deal came into force in 2016. Last year, Chinese-American Xiyue Wang returned home to the United States in exchange for Iranian prisoner Masoud Soleimani.
In March, the family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 13 years ago, confirmed his death in Iranian custody. Iran denies knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts or death.