U.S. Returns Iran Scientist in Possible Precursor to Prisoner Exchange

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An Iranian scientist jailed in the United States was flown back to Iran on Tuesday, a possible precursor to a prisoner exchange between countries despite their increasing hostility since President Trump took office before more than three years.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the scientist Sirous Asgari was on his way home, which Mr. Zarif said in an announcement on his Instagram account as “good news”. A Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Seyed Abbas Mousavi, told the Iranian news media that Mr. Asgari would arrive in Tehran on Wednesday morning.

The release of Mr. Asgari has long been expected by Iranian officials. Although they denied that his release was part of a prisoner exchange, there was evidence that this would be seen by the United States as a positive gesture that could lead to the release of at least one American detained in Iran. It is known that at least four people are in detention.

Mr. Asgari was acquitted at a federal court last November for theft of business secrets in violation of sanctions during an annual Sabbath visit to an American university in Ohio. ICE agents arrested him for deportation after his case was dismissed.

He was infected with the corona virus when he was held in an ICE internment camp in Louisiana, which delayed his return home. American officials attempted to send him back to Iran in March and flew him across the United States nine times to take him on a flight to Iran, but the pandemic closures canceled almost all international air travel.

There was further speculation that an American Navy veteran, Michael R. White, 48, who has been detained in Iran for nearly two years, may soon return to the United States as soon as Mr. Asgari is back in Iran was. Like Mr. Asgari, Mr. White was infected with the corona virus during his detention.

Mr. White, a cancer survivor, had visited an Iranian woman he had met online when he was arrested in July 2018 and later sentenced to a 10-year prison term for somber allegations.

He was released from prison a few months ago when the coronavirus infection became a crisis in Iran. Swiss diplomats acting on behalf of the United States in Iran have taken care of his case.

It was unclear late Tuesday whether Mr White’s status in Iran had changed.

Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for Mr. White’s family, said he had no news of his upcoming release or any indication that the release of Mr. Asgari would matter.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said nothing had changed about Mr. White, and since his vacation from prison, he has lived under “all the arrangements the regime had made with the Swiss”.

The question of prisoners has long been a volatile issue in the alienated relationship between Iran and the United States. Everyone has accused the other of holding his citizens for political reasons.

The last major release of prisoners was when the nuclear deal negotiated with the United States and five other major powers with Iran entered into force in January 2016. The government gave up on this deal after Mr. Trump took office and relations have deteriorated since then.

Rick Gladstone and Lara Jakes contributed to the reporting.

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