Iran said on Wednesday it had arrested, and was holding U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White, 46, of California at a prison in the country, making him the first American known to be detained under President Donald Trump's administration according to AP.
While relations between the US and Iran had entered a holding pattern in recent months as Trump shifted his attention to the border wall situation, White's detention adds new pressure to the rising tension between Iran and the U.S., which under Trump has escalated, culminating with the US pulling out of Obama's nuclear deal with world powers.
While the circumstances of White's detention remain unclear, Iran has in the past used its detention of Westerners and dual nationals as leverage in negotiations. The semi-official Tasnim news agency, close to the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, reported the confirmation citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.
"An American citizen was arrested in the city of Mashhad some time ago and his case was conveyed to the U.S administration on the first days" of his incarceration, Ghasemi was quoted as saying.
White's mother was quoted by the NYT saying she learned three weeks ago that her son is alive and being held at an Iranian prison. His arrest was first reported by an online news service by Iranian expatriates who interviewed a former Iranian prisoner who said he met White at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad in October.
White's mother, Joanne White, had told the Times that her 46-year-old son, who lives in Imperial Beach, California, went to Iran to see his girlfriend and had booked a July 27 flight back home to San Diego via the United Arab Emirates. She filed a missing person report with the State Department after he did not board the flight. She added that he had been undergoing treatment for a neck tumor and has asthma. She said her son had visited Iran “five or six times” previously.
White’s incarceration was first reported on January 7 by Iran Wire, an online news service run by Iranian expatriates. Iran Wire's report was based on an interview with a former Iranian prisoner who was quoted as saying he had met White at Vakilabad Prison in the city of Mashhad in October. The prisoner, identified as Irvar Farhadi, was briefly held at the same facility as White in Mashhad, Iran Wire reported according to Radio Free Europe.
Farhadi told Iran Wire that White had met an Iranian woman online and traveled to Iran several times to see her.
On his third visit, when White and his girlfriend were about to fly to Turkey, he was arrested at Hasheminejad Airport in Mashhad, Farhadi said.
White is not alone as there are four other known American citizens being held in Iran.
Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative who served as governor of Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province under the U.S.-backed shah, are both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges. Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly "infiltrating" the country while doing doctoral research on Iran's Qajar dynasty.
Iranian-American Robin Shahini was released on bail in 2017 after staging a hunger strike while serving an 18-year prison sentence for "collaboration with a hostile government." Shahini is believed to still be in Iran. Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage-related charges. Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, though his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance. Tehran now says it has no information about him.
Controversially, in January 2016, Iran released four Americans as part of a prisoners swap, including Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief, Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Idaho, and Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Flint, Michigan. In exchange, the United States released several Iranians held on sanctions violations. Additionally, the Obama administration secretly funneled approximately $56 billion to Iran to secure the transfer.