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Iran Releases U.S. Navy Veteran After 2-Year-Long Incarceration


Iran has released an American citizen and sent him home. Navy veteran Michael White was headed out of Iran towards the U.S. today after nearly two years in Iranian custody. The release came a couple of days after an Iranian was freed from U.S. detention and on the same day that a U.S. court ended a case against an Iranian American. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about these prisoner releases between two countries that are still very much in conflict.

Hi, Michele.


SHAPIRO: Start by telling us a little bit about who Michael White is.

KELEMEN: Right. So as you said, he's a Navy veteran. He's in his late 40s, and he was arrested almost two years ago in northeastern Iran. And it's kind of a murky case, Ari. He was apparently visiting his girlfriend. A lawyer who represents his family here says White was accused of violating that woman's privacy by posting a picture of her on Instagram and that he was accused of insulting Iran's supreme leader. He was let out of prison on medical furlough recently. He's a cancer survivor who, by the way, contracted the coronavirus. Today he was flown out of Iran on a Swiss plane, and U.S. envoy Brian Hook picked him up in Switzerland. His mother calls this the end of a nightmare.

SHAPIRO: Wow. And what more can you tell us about the circumstances surrounding his release and who the U.S. has released?

KELEMEN: Yeah. You know, earlier this week, the U.S. deported an Iranian scientist who was acquitted last year on charges of trying to steal trade secrets. That's a fellow who was held for many months in ICE detention, where he, too, contracted the coronavirus. A U.S. court also terminated a case today against a Florida doctor, an Iranian American, a dual citizen who had been accused of sanctions violations. The Swiss government says it helped with that case, and it stands ready for further facilitation.

Iran's foreign minister is also holding out the prospect now for more prisoner swaps. He wrote today on Twitter, no need for cherry-picking. Iran's hostages held in and on behalf of the U.S. should come home. Those were his words. The U.S., of course, doesn't see Iranians held here on various legal charges as hostages. Iran, on the other hand, does have a long history of taking hostages and picking up, you know, dual nationals, holding secret trials and then trading them.

SHAPIRO: Does this give any hope to others who are being held in Iran now?

KELEMEN: It's interesting. You know, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that his special representative Brian Hook negotiated with the Iranians on this. Pompeo's statement says that Iran was constructive in this matter and that there's more work to do. He named three Iranian Americans still held there, including Siamak Namazi, who is marking five years in jail. Now, Namazi's brother put out a very heartbreaking statement today, saying it's hard to understand why his brother has been passed over now in three prisoner swaps. And his father, who had been released from prison for medical reasons, is still trapped in Iran, and he can't leave the country still.

SHAPIRO: So just briefly, after several of these releases, does it change the overall relationship between the two countries at all?

KELEMEN: Well, it doesn't seem to. In 2016, there was a prisoner swap just as the nuclear deal was going into force. It was meant to build up confidence, but Iran continued to arrest dual nationals. And last year, Iran released a Chinese American graduate student in a prisoner swap, but that didn't really ease tensions at all, either. In fact, soon after, you had tensions boiling over in Iraq. You'll remember...


KELEMEN: A U.S. drone strike killed the top Iranian general, and Iran responded with a barrage of missiles.

SHAPIRO: OK. We have to leave it there, I'm afraid.

NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.