In a bizarre twist of fate, Michael White, the US Navy veteran released from Iranian custody this week, may owe his freedom to the deadly coronavirus outbreak. When he and an Iranian being held in the US came down with the virus it presented an opportunity to kick-start delicate negotiations that ultimately culminated in his release.
White, 48, traveled to Iran in July 2018 to visit a woman he said was his girlfriend. In January 2019, the Iranian government confirmed that White had been arrested in the city of Mashhad “a while ago.” The State Department said he had been detained since 2018 and was serving a 13-year sentence. He had been charged with insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader and posting private information online.
In the absence of any formal relations between the Trump administration and the Iranian regime, Bill Richardson, an outspoken Democrat and critic of Trump, formed an unlikely partnership with the administration and played a key role in securing White’s release.
Richardson, who is a former governor of New Mexico and was ambassador to the UN under President Bill Clinton, runs the Richardson Center for Diplomacy and has worked with the State Department to secure the release of a number of Americans held oversees, including Otto Warmbier from North Korea.
It was Richardson’s efforts to free another American, Xiyue Wang, that got the ball rolling on White’s release.
Wang, a 38-year-old American graduate student, was imprisoned in Tehran for more than three years on suspicion of being a spy. In exchange for his release in December, the US freed Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist who had been arrested at a Chicago airport last year and convicted on charges of violating American trade sanctions against Iran. In a press briefing Thursday, State Department special representative for Iran Brian Hook called Wang’s release a “breakthrough.”
“Wang was structured as the first of two releases,” Richardson said in an interview with CNN, terms he had discussed with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a pair of meetings last year, with the hope that White’s release would soon follow.
To secure the deal, Richardson’s team assured Tehran that they would work to get Germany to agree to release Ahmad Khalili, an Iranian arrested in 2018 but wanted by the US in connection with alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran. Khalili, who worked for Iran’s government-controlled Meraj Air, was alleged to have procured Cessna planes and parts for delivery to Iran.
“Zarif, in Doha, told me that if I wanted Michael White, I needed to produce an Iranian in a German prison whose name is Khalili,” Richardson said.
“We operated a back channel with the Germans,” said Mickey Bergman, a negotiator on Richardson’s team involved in the discussions. “We didn’t need the US administration for that, especially after the Wang release. We’ll do the back channel and then from the Iranian perspective they get their man out.”
Soleimani killing stalled progress
At first, the plan appeared to be on track. But in January, the effort hit a brick wall.
Less than a week into 2020, President Donald Trump OK’d a plan to kill Iran’s powerful Gen. Qasem Soleimani, in a strike in Iraq. The administration, at the time, claimed that Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, was planning imminent attacks on Americans and had to be stopped.
For a time, it appeared that the two countries were on the brink of war.
“There was no way they were going to let an American go at that point,” Bergman said, referring to the Iranians. Tehran opted to work directly with Germany, ultimately securing Khalili’s release in February.
“The next message we got shortly after that from the Iranians: We want Taheri,” Richardson said, referring to US-Iranian scientist Majid Taheri, who had been detained last year for alleged sanctions violations.
Another Iranian scientist in US custody, Sirous Asgari, who had been acquitted of the charges against him in December and whose release was pending, had been of interest to the Iranians during the negotiations, but Taheri was viewed by Tehran as a more commensurate exchange.
Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, echoed Tehran’s view that Taheri was a more appropriate exchange for White.
“So they started pushing for two for one,” Richardson said.
It was a tough sell to make to the Trump administration, which has pulled out of the Obama-era Iran nuclear accord and is embroiled in a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that includes crippling sanctions.
The Iranians also really needed the win. The country, by February, had become the largest epicenter for the novel coronavirus outside of China. The pandemic struck the country just weeks after it saw some of the largest popular protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, partly in response to an economy collapsing due to sanctions.
“I had pushed the White House on Taheri. I told them this is what it’s going to take,” said Richardson. “And I pushed the Iranians on White.”
Virus outbreak created an opportunity
The plot thickened in March. White began to exhibit Covid-19 symptoms. Iran, already inundated by the virus, agreed to release him on medical furlough.
Then in April, Asgari – who by then had been placed in an isolation cell inside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail cell in Louisiana – also tested positive for the virus.
Amid the tragedy, an opportunity presented itself.
“The language we used is a medical evacuation, not a release,” Bergman said. “Covid gave us an opportunity. There are Iranians in American custody with Covid, so it was a medical-release-to-medical-release. Taheri, they claimed, had a health condition so it was also compatible.”
The Trump administration repeatedly denied that a prisoner swap for Asgari was at play. On Friday, Hook said there was “never a connection” between the Iranian scientist and White, telling reporters, “Us trying to deport Asgari predates my diplomacy in terms of it getting going on Michael White by many months.”
In a Twitter post last month, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Kenneth Cuccinelli, lashed out at Iran’s foreign minister, insisting that Iran was responsible for the delay in repatriating its citizens.
“@JZarif, after months of stalling @DHSgov as we have been trying to return Sirous Asgari, you suddenly woke up one day recently and say you actually want him back. You SAY you want all of your citizens back. I call B.S.,” he wrote.
The message reportedly incensed the Iranians, as well as the Swiss, who were working behind the scenes as interlocutors for the US government to secure the deal. Because the US does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, Switzerland represents US interests there.
By then, flights had been drastically limited due to coronavirus travel restrictions, and securing a flight for Asgari out of the US proved somewhat complicated.
Despite the back-and-forth, the plan remained on track. And while both sides ultimately decided that there would not be a tarmac swap with Asgari, the Trump administration decided, ultimately, to allow it to happen with Taheri.
Asgari was released from ICE custody and sent home earlier this week.
Told to buy new clothes and wait at hotel
On Wednesday, White was seen by a doctor while on medical furlough in a Tehran hospital and determined to be clear of Covid symptoms – welcome news for him and his family, since he suffers from other underlying conditions. He was then sent to buy new clothes and wait in his hotel.
The Swiss government liaisons said they would pay him a visit on Thursday.
At 5 p.m. on Thursday, he boarded a plane bound for Switzerland. CNN reported the news of his release almost as soon as he cleared Iranian airspace.
Hook, the special envoy for Iran, awaited on the tarmac. To the surprise of many, including Richardson and his team, Taheri was headed home too.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not mention Richardson in his statement hailing White’s release, but he commended Hook for his work. Speaking to reporters Friday, Hook credited Swiss Ambassador to Iran Markus Leitner, Swiss Ambassador to the US Jacques Pitteloud and Maya Tissafi, who works for the Swiss Embassy in Iran and accompanied White on his flight to Zurich.
“Diplomacy with Iran is never a linear process, and I am never confident about the conclusion of any diplomacy until it’s concluded,” Hook said. “But we work in good faith with the Iranian regime through the Swiss, and that’s through Markus Leitner, and just through very patient, very methodical diplomacy we were able to get a diplomatic win yesterday for Michael White and his family.”
Richardson claimed that he opted to circumvent the State Department whenever possible, speaking directly to the White House. Richardson and Hook have been critical of each other in the past, and Hook, when asked, often dismisses Richardson’s role in hostage negotiations.
“I don’t have any comment on Bill Richardson,” Hook said Friday. “That’s something that you would have to ask Michael’s mother,” who thanked the former governor “for repeatedly raising Michael’s case with Iranian officials and delivering my personal pleas for my son’s freedom.”
On Friday, White’s family acknowledged the disconnect between the State Department and Richardson’s efforts, tweeting, “The @StateDept’s refusal to acknowledge @GovRichardson is unseemly and childish. Beyond the obvious, it puts the egos of unelected bureaucrats above the hostage recovery mission. #DoBetter”
In a second tweet the family wrote: “We know so many other hostage families whose “day” hasn’t yet come. Many of them, whose loved ones are locked up in God awful places are counting on @GovRichardson’s help. This was a chance for them to turn a new leaf. it was important to Joanne,” referring to White’s mother.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect how Majid Taheri returned to Iran.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.