WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy veteran detained in Iran since 2018 was freed on Thursday and was on his way back home, his family said in a statement, a rare instance of cooperation between Tehran and Washington despite their bitter relationship.
Michael White had been released from an Iranian prison in mid-March on medical furlough but was held in Iran under Swiss custody.
"For 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare," his mother Joanne White said in a statement. "I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home." IRGC is the acronym for Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Both countries have called for the release of prisoners because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Iran is one of the worst-hit countries in the Middle East, while the United States has reported the highest number of deaths and infections worldwide from the virus.
U.S.-Iranian relations have been bitter since the Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran in 1979 and ushered in an era of theocratic rule. Tensions flared after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
Worsening tensions, a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
White’s release comes two days after the United States deported Sirous Asgari, an Iranian professor imprisoned in the United States despite being acquitted on charges of stealing trade secrets. Iranian media reported his arrival on Wednesday.
Both the U.S. State Department and Iranian officials have repeatedly denied that Asgari was part of a swap with White, or anyone else and said his case was separate.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay; editing by Jonathan Oatis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)