Iran has incarcerated another American citizen. On Wednesday, the clerical regime confirmed reports that Michael R. White, 46, a former U.S. Navy officer from San Diego, resides in its custody. If past is precedent, Tehran likely intends to use White – and several other Americans languishing in its prisons – as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Washington.
On Monday, the IranWire news site reported that a political prisoner, Irvar Farhadi, had encountered White in Mashhad’s Vakilabad Prison. “He was not in a good psychological condition and is not allowed visitors or access to the phone,” said Farhadi, whom Tehran had arrested in October for criticizing the regime on social media. “He is virtually a hostage without any charges against him.”
“Michael is kept among dangerous criminals including murderers and professional drug smugglers and his life is in danger,” added Farhadi. “I promised to myself that if I got out of prison one of the first things that I would do would be to inform people about the situation of this American prisoner.” The regime released Farhadi on bail in November. He then fled to Turkey and applied for asylum.
After the publication of IranWire’s story, White’s mother, Joanne White, told The New York Times that Tehran had apprehended her son in late July while he was visiting an Iranian girlfriend. Lupe White, the Navy veteran’s wife, disclosed to CNN that her husband had met the woman online and had traveled to Iran to see her a number of times in the past. The couple had previously discussed divorce but she remains committed to him, Lupe White said.
Tehran bears a lengthy history of arresting foreign nationals and permanent residents, particularly Iranian dual citizens, on spurious espionage charges. At least 10 such captives remain in jail today, including businessman Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American, and Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American. Former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007 and remains missing.
In December, the families of multiple detainees published an open letter calling for their freedom. Each case, the missive stated, constitutes “deliberate and tactical moves by the Iranian authorities to secure bargaining chips.” Consequently, it continued, “we should call this what it is: hostage taking.”
The letter criticized the international community for “inadequate pressure” on the regime. “World leaders,” it declared, “need to make the political cost for committing human rights violations so high that releasing our loved ones becomes advantageous to the Iranian authorities.”
Tehran already has a record of success extracting concessions from the United States in exchange for prisoners. In January 2016, on the day after the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal, Washington secured the freedom of four Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, by releasing seven Iranian sanctions violators, dropping charges on 14 at-large Iranians suspected of similar offenses, and airlifting $400 million in cash to the regime. The Obama administration subsequently sent Iran an additional $1.3 billion, but claimed that the payments aimed to settle an old debt to Tehran.
Rezaian, for his part, has continued to pursue justice for his 544-day incarceration. On Tuesday, he asked a federal judge to impose $1 billion in punitive damages against the regime in order to deter future hostage-taking. The journalist, who first filed his lawsuit in October 2016, also requested $44 million in compensatory and economic damages.
To be sure, Tehran is unlikely to relinquish such funds voluntarily, making Rezaian’s claim “98 percent symbolic,” as the judge, Richard J. Leon, put it. Still, Rezaian’s initiative, like the open letter, reflects a recognition by Iran’s victims that its misconduct will continue unless it suffers meaningful consequences. The Trump administration should act accordingly.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.