Iranian materials scientist Dr. Sirous Asgari has been freed from custody and will return to his homeland on the next flight as soon as he tests negative for coronavirus, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has announced.
“He is free,” Zarif said, speaking to reporters Monday, his remarks cited by Press TV. “Sirous Asgari has been acquitted of his charges and if he tested negative for COVID-19, he could return to the country on the first flight.”
However, US Department of Homeland Security acting deputy chief Ken Cuccinelli splashed cold water on Zarif’s comments, claiming that the US has actually been “trying to return Sirous Asgari” to Iran, but that it was the Iranian side that didn’t want to take him back. “You suddenly SAY you want them back, so how about you send a charter plane over and we’ll return all 11 [Iranians in custody] at once?” Cuccinelli tweeted.
(2/x) We have 11 of your citizens who are illegal aliens who we have been trying to return to your country. You suddenly SAY you want them back, so how about you send a charter plane over and we’ll return all 11 at once? If you’ve been speaking truth these last few weeks...— Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli (@HomelandKen) May 11, 2020
(3/x) ... and you REALLY DO want your citizens back, then stop stalling and send the plane. The world is watching... and expecting the usual outcome, namely, that you will do nothing except keep talking.@JZarif - send the plane!— Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli (@HomelandKen) May 11, 2020
US media reported last week that Washington and Tehran were negotiating a prisoner swap, with the US side reportedly seeking the release of former US Navy service member Michael R. White in exchange for Asgari and an unnamed Iranian-American doctor. White was said to have been temporarily released from an Iranian prison in late March after testing positive for COVID-19, and held in the custody of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in the Islamic Republic. He was said to have made a full recovery.
In his comments Monday, Zarif said all measures were taken from the Iranian side to ensure Asgari’s return home, and recalled that he had said over a year and a half ago that Iran was “ready to swap all Iranian prisoners who are in jail in the US or other countries under the US pressure with all American prisoners.” He added, however, that “the Americans gave no response” at the time.
The FBI began suspecting Asgari of illegal activity in 2013, obtaining search warrants against him in 2013 and 2015. He was indicted in 2017, and accused of withholding information in his visa application, sidestepping US sanctions, and illegally transferring technology to Iran. The charges against him were dropped after the courts found insufficient evidence to convict him and he was exonerated in late 2019, but continued to be held, transferred to the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scientist reported being shuttled back and forth from holding facilities across the country on planes filled with immigrants. In late April, he was reported to have contracted coronavirus, but not allowed to be sent to hospital because he didn’t report breathing problems.
White was arrested by Iranian authorities in mid-2018 during a visit to Iran, ostensibly to see his partner, an Iranian woman he’d met online. He was sentenced to ten years in Iranian prison for insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader and violating privacy laws. Along with White, at least three other Americans are thought to be held in Iran on various charges as of this moment. About 20 Iranian nationals are similarly believed to be detained in the US.
Following a brief stint of improving relations between 2015 and 2016 after the signature of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Iran nuclear deal, ties between the US and Iran have sunk to new lows in recent years, particularly after President Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reinstated tough banking and energy sanctions against the Islamic Republic. In 2019, the two countries stood on the brink of war in the wake of a series of incidents involving tanker sabotage attacks, ship seizures and drone shootdowns. In January 2020, the US assassinated Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most senior generals, in Baghdad. Tehran retaliated by targeting US bases in Iraq with missiles, leaving at least 110 US personnel with traumatic brain injuries. Tensions began heating up again last month after the US Navy complained about the “harassment” of US ships by small Iranian gunboats near Iran’s coast.