Detained US Navy Vet Freed by Iran 06/05 06:21
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A U.S. Navy veteran whose family said his only crime was
falling in love left Iran on Thursday after nearly two years of detention,
winning his freedom as part of a deal that spared an American-Iranian physician
from any additional time behind bars.
Michael White flew from Tehran to Zurich, where he was met by diplomat Brian
Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran who has led the negotiations for the
release of White and other American detainees in Iran. White and Hook then
departed Zurich on a U.S. government plane.
In Atlanta, meanwhile, a federal judge approved a sentencing agreement for
Florida dermatologist Matteo Taerri, who had been charged by the Justice
Department with violating U.S. sanctions on Iran as well as banking laws.
The developments capped months of quiet talks, assisted by Switzerland,
between two countries, that 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.
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.
"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
As White flew to Switzerland, U.S. prosecutors completed the American part
of the arrangement that Hook negotiated by asking a judge to sentence Taerri to
time served on his conviction stemming from the 2018 charges. U.S. officials
said Taerri did not pose a national security threat. "We were simultaneously
able to secure the release of an American Navy veteran from an Iranian prison
and accomplish our law enforcement objectives," Hook said.
"There are numerous foreign policy interests that are furthered by this
particular sentence," U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May said in granting the
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 $10,000 to evade
reporting requirements under federal law.
He pleaded guilty late last year and has already served months behind bars.
But in April, he was permitted to be free on bond after the Justice Department
withdrew its request to have him detained, citing 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," Assistant
U.S. Attorney Tracia King said at Thursday's hearing. "This case, and more
specifically the sentence recommendation, is directly related to these
A citizen of Iran and the United States, Taerri is permitted as part of his
sentence to remain in America 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. He tweeted later in the day that he had spoken by phone with White.
In an interview with Fox News after his release, White praised Trump "for
his efforts both diplomatically and otherwise" and said "he is making America
A spokesman for the White family, Jon Franks, said in a statement that the
charges against White "were pretexts for a state-sponsored kidnap-for-ransom
scheme." He added: "The tragedy of this case is Michael's 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
recent deportation to Iran of Iranian scientist Sirous Asgari, the officials
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted that such deals can
"happen for all prisoners. No need for cherry picking. Iranian hostages held in
-- and on behalf of -- the US should come home." Trump also said the
arrangement "shows a deal is possible."
White was released from prison on a medical furlough in March 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. White's mother had
earlier 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
The U.S. has also urged Iran to release other Americans jailed in Iran.
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 after Hook led
negotiations for the U.S.
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.