By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON, May 6 (Reuters) – Switzerland, which represents the United States in Iran, has asked Tehran to extend the medical furlough from detention of U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday, as the coronavirus continues spreading.
Pompeo also thanked Switzerland for seeking humanitarian furloughs from detention by Iran for dual U.S.-Iranian citizens Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz.
Pompeo’s comments came after U.S. and Iranian officials said Washington is expected to deport an Iranian academic, Sirous Asgari, who was acquitted of stealing trade secrets, once he receives medical clearance.
Asgari tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to an official at Tehran’s interests section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
His expected deportation and the medical furlough from detention granted in March to White, a U.S. Navy veteran jailed in Iran since 2018, have raised the possibility of a rare prisoner swap even as tensions between the foes remain high.
Speaking at a State Department news conference, Pompeo expressed gratitude to Switzerland “for its efforts to extend Michael White’s medical furlough and seeking humanitarian furloughs for Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz and bringing home all U.S. citizens wrongly detained.”
White has been in the Swiss embassy’s custody since his furlough. He was arrested while visiting a girlfriend, convicted of insulting Iran‘s supreme leader and posting private information and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Switzerland acts as the protecting power for the United States in Tehran, which has not had formal diplomatic relations with Washington since 1980.
Both sides have called for the releases of their detained citizens by the other as each confronts mounting cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, has been detained in Iran since October 2015. Pompeo did not mention Namazi’s elderly father, Baquer Namazi, also a dual national, who is serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly spying.
Tahbaz was one of eight environmentalists sentenced in February to lengthy prison terms, most for allegedly colluding with the United States.
In March, the family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in March 2007, said it believed he was dead. Iran said it had no knowledge of his whereabouts.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)