After spending two-years in Iranian custody, efforts to secure the release of Michael White have been successful.
Michael White is presented a U.S. flag by Amassador McMullen. June 4, 2020. (photo: U.S. Embassy in Switzerland.)
Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran held in Iran for almost two years, was released by Iranian authorities on Thursday.
“For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard] and I have been living a nightmare,” Joanne White said in a statement posted to Twitter by family spokesperson Jonathan Franks.
“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely in American custody and on his way home”. — Joanne White
Michael White, 48, arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Thursday via a flight from Zurich, where he had flown for a handover to U.S. authorities.
White was arrested after traveling to Iran in July 2018 to meet a woman and was reported missing after failing to board his return flight to the United Arab Emirates.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed he had been arrested in January the following year. In March 2019, he was sentenced to 12-years in prison for insulting the country’s supreme leader and sharing a private photograph on social media.
White expressed his appreciation to U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he spoke to by phone after landing.
“I want to extend my personal thanks to President Trump for his efforts both
diplomatically and otherwise,” he said. “He is making America great again and I look forward to what is going to happen here in the future.”
A senior U.S. official stated that part of the deal to free White, included an agreement by the U.S. to release an Iranian-American doctor, Majid Taheri, who served 16-months for violating American sanctions against Iran.
Officials say they’re working to free at least three other American citizens in Iran, including Siamak Namazi, a businessman; his father Baquer Namazi; and Morad Tahbaz, an American environmentalist.
Officials are also working to secure the remains of former FBI agent Robert Levinson. Levinson’s family announced in late March that they received official confirmation from sources in intelligence that Levinson died in Iranian custody.
President Trump’s approach to freeing prisoners in Iran’s control shows a stark contrast from the previous administration, which previously withheld $400 million dollars as leverage against Iran to release American prisoners.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that the previous administration had tried to hide a payment for the four Americans. Former President Obama and his administration have denied these charges.
Testimony from one of the hostages himself indicates that the hostages were kept overnight at the airport as an assurance that the promised plane of money was on its way.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the arrangement did not in any way constitute a ransom payment. However, he did explain that the U.S. held onto the $400 million cash payment until American prisoners were on a plane and safely away from Iran to “retain maximum leverage.”
“He denied it was for the hostages, but it was,” President Trump said during a
campaign rally in North Carolina. “He said we don’t pay ransom, but he did. He lied about the hostages — openly and blatantly — just like he lied about Obamacare.”
Kirby was asked how this transaction differed from a ransom payment, to which he replied that the U.S. does not pay and Iran was “going to get this money anyway because the Hague tribunal decided that they were going to get their money back” and the U.S. was simply holding up that payment until Iran held up its end of the bargain. To do anything other than that, Kirby said, “would have been foolish, imprudent, irresponsible.”
Obama officials reiterated these claims about the occurrence, the final amount of the settlement was $400 million plus $1.3 billion in interest.
A Newsweek report from January raised suspicion of these claims, and outlined how the $400 million had already been reallocated in 2000 by President Bill Clinton to Americans who had won legal judgments against the Iranian government. U.S. taxpayers, not the Iranian government, doled out damages for cases that often pertained to terrorism or other violent acts.
A senior Iranian military official claimed the $1.7 billion is effectively a ransom for the American hostages Tehran released in January.
“This money was returned for the freedom of the U.S. spies, and it was not related to the nuclear negotiations,” Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi said Wednesday, according to Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency.
Many Americans were worried because the White House handed over $1.7 billion in cash to the world’s biggest State sponsor of terrorism, according to the State Department’s June 2016 Terrorism Report.
Cash is the preferred currency of terrorism. In a worst-case scenario, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies estimates that we released as much as $33.6 billion in cash and precious metals to Iran.
Paying for hostages leads to incentives to take more hostages, and in a regime like Iran’s, hostage taking and ransom seeking is a core element of statecraft.
George Schultz, stated this problem in his memoirs,
“We should always be willing to talk to any credible person about our hostages. Hostages should know we would never cease our efforts to gain their release. But we owe the millions of Americans at risk throughout the world that they will not be turned into targets by the known willingness of our government to pay money, sell arms, pressure another government to pay money, or in any other way make it profitable to take Americans hostages.”
(Contributing journalist, Allegra Nokaj) (Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)