WASHINGTON - U.S. officials believe they're making progress in efforts to secure the release from Iran of a detained Navy veteran, but they are pushing back on Iranian suggestions that a swap is in the works for an imprisoned Iranian that American officials have been trying to deport since last year.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, said Wednesday that the cases of American detainee Michael White in Iran and Sirous Asgari, the Iranian imprisoned in the United States, have never been connected. He expressed frustration with recent comments from Iranian officials that there may be a link between the two and complained that Iran had been slow to accept Asgari's return.
"We've been trying to deport this guy for months," Cuccinelli told The Associated Press. "There has never been any breath of a link between the two until they made it a news story a couple of days ago."
Cuccinelli said DHS had started to try to deport Asgari on Dec. 12 after his acquittal on charges of trying to steal sensitive trade secrets. However, he said, Iran refused to recognize him as legitimately Iranian and provide him with a validated passport until late February.
Once Asgari received the passport, DHS made several attempts to fly him back to Iran, purchasing tickets for flights on March 10, March 18, March 23, April 1 and May 1, according to Cuccinelli. Each of those flights was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner who has advocated for tougher deportation policies, said Iran has also been slow-walking the return of 10 other Iranian prisoners slated for deportation from the U.S.
Asgari "is one of 11 Iranians that have orders of removal that Iran is not taking back and there's a bunch more we're processing," Cuccinelli said. "We've been trying to get rid of this guy for six months. If they'd send us a plane tomorrow, we've got 11 of them for them to take back now. From our perspective, (Asgari) is no different than others."
He would not speculate as to why the Iranians appeared reluctant to accept deportees back into the country but said Iran has a history of "being difficult" in such cases.
Cuccinelli's remarks came amid reports that a prisoner swap for White, who is currently on a medical furlough after being jailed in Iran, could be imminent and comments from Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, that Asgari could be in the mix.
Senior U.S. officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity said the administration's efforts to get White released are continuing separately from the DHS deportation cases. But they could not predict if or when the release might be finalized; nor would they say if it would involve the actual swap of any prisoners.
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned White and thanked Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, for its work in helping to get the veteran released from prison on a medical furlough that was extended last month. Pompeo also reiterated calls for Iran to release other Americans held there, including Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz.
"Our gratitude also goes out to Switzerland, the United States protecting power in Iran for now four decades, 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 wrongfully detained," Pompeo told reporters at a State Department news conference.
White, of Imperial Beach, California, was detained in July 2018 while visiting a girlfriend in Iran. He was convicted of insulting Iran's supreme leader and posting private information online.
He was released from prison in March on a medical furlough that required him to remain in the country. White is among tens of thousands of prisoners granted medical furloughs by Iran, which was one of the first countries to be hit hard by the spreading coronavirus.
White's mother has told The Associated Press that she was especially concerned about her son's health because of his battles with cancer, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called on Iran to grant him an immediate humanitarian evacuation.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly said they consider the release of American hostages and detainees to be a high priority.
In December, Iran released a Princeton University scholar held for three years on widely disputed espionage charges in exchange for the release of a detained Iranian scientist.
In March, the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran 13 years ago, said they had been informed by U.S. officials that they had determined that Levinson was probably dead. Officials have not said how they reached that conclusion.