An Iranian scientist who had been under U.S. prosecution or detention since 2016 has arrived back in Iran after being deported by the U.S., a move that U.S. and Iranian officials said is not part of another prisoner swap between the two longtime enemies.
Iranian state media showed images of Sirous Asgari being greeted by well-wishers after his arrival at Tehran’s airport Wednesday morning local time.
Earlier, his California-based daughter, Zahra Asgari, had announced his deportation by the U.S. in a Monday post on her “Free Professor Sirous Asgari” Facebook group that she created in March.
She wrote that she was sharing “good news” that her father was flying to Iran and thanked friends for supporting her campaign for his release from U.S. custody.
The 59-year old materials science professor had been in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since his November acquittal in a U.S. federal court case.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio dismissed charges that Asgari stole trade secrets while working at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, ruling that prosecutors did not present sufficient evidence. Prosecutors had filed the indictment against Asgari in April 2016.
ICE had flown Asgari between several U.S. detention centers in the months after his acquittal, as U.S. officials said they were trying to deport him to Iran but ran into difficulties in arranging passenger flights with the coronavirus disrupting international air travel.
Asgari was transferred to the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, his final stop before deportation, in March. The following month, he contracted the coronavirus at the facility, prompting U.S. authorities to say they were further delaying his departure until he recovered.
In May, some U.S. media and commentators speculated that Asgari could be deported in return for Iran freeing Michael R. White, a Navy veteran whom it arrested in 2018 as he visited his girlfriend in Mashhad and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly insulting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran released White into the custody of the Swiss embassy in Tehran in March after he exhibited coronavirus symptoms but has refused to let him leave the country. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei fueled the speculation of White’s possible release by telling state-approved news site Khabaronline last month that Tehran was “ready” for a full prisoner exchange with the U.S.
U.S. officials dismissed the speculation, saying they were working to secure White’s release independently of Asgari’s case and had received no formal prisoner swap offers from Iran. Washington long has accused Tehran of unjustly holding White and several other Americans on trumped up charges and demanded their release. Tehran has called for the U.S. to release an undefined number of Iranians who have been jailed or restricted in their movements by U.S. courts as they face prosecution but has shown little public or private support for those individuals.
In a Tuesday statement to VOA Persian, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus reiterated Washington’s view of the Asgari case, saying he “is not and has never been a participant in any prisoner swap with Iran.” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi had acknowledged that Asgari’s release was not part of a prisoner swap in comments to Iranian state TV earlier Tuesday.
1/2) Asgari and White have never been related. We have been trying to deport Asghari since last year, being stalled every step of the way by the Iranian government. We wish Iran was so enthusiastic to get its illegal nationals back as they would have us all believe... https://t.co/gKX4DzVhJB— Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli (@HomelandKen) June 2, 2020
Responding to a Monday tweet about Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announcing that Asgari was flying back to Iran, acting U.S. Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli also repeated his accusation that Iran had been stalling U.S. efforts to deport Asgari for months. In an interview with the Associated Press last month, Cuccinelli said Iran had refused to provide Asgari a valid passport until late February and was refusing to charter a plane to pick him up.
“We wish Iran was so enthusiastic to get its illegal nationals back as they would have us all believe, so how about the Iranians take the other 10 currently in ICE custody with removal orders?” Cuccinelli wrote in his Monday tweet. “If Zarif wasn’t blowing smoke, they would have already made arrangements for these other 10. But instead, they stall.”
The Department of Homeland Security has declined to comment on VOA Persian’s request for the names of the other 10 Iranians in ICE custody.
The last, rare U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange happened December 7, when Iran freed Chinese American academic Xiyue Wang in return for the U.S. releasing Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani. The swap happened in Zurich through Swiss mediation.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Cindy Saine contributed from the State Department.