By Humeyra Pamuk and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy veteran who said he contracted the coronavirus while detained in Iran since 2018 was freed on Thursday as part of a deal in which the United States allowed an Iranian-American physician to visit Iran, his lawyer and a U.S. official said.
Iran‘s decision to release American Michael White and the U.S. move to let dual citizen Majid Taheri visit Iran, both of which were confirmed by Iran‘s foreign minister, appeared to be a rare instance of U.S.-Iranian cooperation.
A White House spokesman expressed hope that White’s release could lead to an opening in the bitter relationship.
The two nations are at odds on a host of issues including the U.S. decision to abandon a deal to curb Iran‘s nuclear program and impose crippling economic sanctions on Tehran, as well as their jockeying for influence across the Middle East.
White had been released from an Iranian prison in mid-March after being sentenced in 2019 for an unspecified offense, but had remained in Iran in the custody of Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran since the two cut diplomatic ties shortly after Iran‘s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“I’m improving. I did contract coronavirus in the Mashhad central prison prior to going out on furlough. But I’m recovering pretty decently,” White told Fox News Channel on the tarmac of Zurich airport, adding he had been “in poor shape.”
“I feel all right, and happy to be back,” White said, thanking President Donald Trump “for his efforts both diplomatically and otherwise, making America great again.” He also thanked the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
“I just got off the phone with former American hostage Michael White, who is now in Zurich after being released from Iran. He will be on a U.S. plane shortly, and is COMING HOME,” Trump said on Twitter.
“Thank you to Iran, it shows a deal is possible!” Trump added.
The Swiss Foreign Ministry confirmed it played a role in what it called “the humanitarian gesture” on White and Taheri and said it “stands ready” to help further.
The negotiations to get White released followed several months of discussions with Iran, said a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Taheri’s lawyer said Taheri would visit family in Iran and seek medical treatment before returning to the United States. He has pleaded guilty to violating U.S. sanctions, the lawyer added.
RARE BRIGHT SPOT
The deal is a rare bright spot in an otherwise deeply frayed relationship that has grown more hostile since Trump took office in 2017.
Asked whether White’s release could be an opening in terms of U.S.-Iranian relations, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News Channel: “Hopefully so.”
U.S.-Iranian relations have been bitter since the Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran in 1979 and Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Tensions flared after Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions, and worsened after a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran‘s elite Quds Force.
Both nations have called for the release of prisoners due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Iran is one of the worst-hit countries in the Middle East, while the United States has reported the world’s highest number of deaths and infections.
White’s release came 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.
The U.S. State Department and Iranian officials have denied Asgari was part of a swap with White or anyone else, calling his case separate.
Last December, Washington and Tehran worked on a prisoner exchange in which Iran freed U.S. citizen Xiyue Wang, who had been held for three years on spying charges, and the United States freed Iranian Massoud Soleimani, who faced charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Jonathan Landay, Tim Ahmann, David Brunnstrom, Mark Hosenball and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Peter Cooney)