An Iranian scientist imprisoned for years in the United States despite being acquitted in a trade secrets case is on his way back to Iran on Tuesday after being deported by US authorities.
Professor Sirous Asgari was in the air on a flight back to Tehran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an Instagram post, writing: “Congratulations to his wife and his esteemed family,”
There was no immediate word on Iranian state media about the flight.
Asgari, a professor at Iran’s Sharif University of Technology, was indicted in April 2016 while on an academic research visit to the US.
He was accused by federal prosecutors of trying to steal secret research from Case Western Reserve University. The Cleveland school had been working on a project for the US Navy Office of Naval Research to create anti-corrosive stainless steel.
Asgari was ultimately acquitted in November 2019 after US District Judge James Gwin tossed out the case by prosecutors.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told The Associated Press it tried to deport Asgari on December 12 after his acquittal. However, he said, Iran refused to recognise him as legitimately Iranian or provide him with a validated passport until late February 2020.
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 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Asgari’s supporters told The Guardian newspaper in April that he contracted the coronavirus while imprisoned. He had been held at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement before his deportation.
Iran’s deputy education minister, Hossein Salar Amoli, recently said Asgari recovered from the virus and would be able to travel, state-run IRNA news agency reported.
It was unclear if Iran would release an American prisoner as part of a deal.
Assal Rad, from the National Iranian American Council, said if there was a prisoner exchange, it would mark a positive step forward in the tense relations between the rivals.
“The speculation comes from the fact that a prisoner exchange is the lowest-lying fruit in diplomacy in a situation where you want to see a relationship develop. Just a few months ago we were on the brink of war, so the idea of a prisoner exchange is always the first diplomatic step taken,” Rad told Al Jazeera.
Reporting from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi said Asgari had become “a bit of a playing card in a political game” between Iran and the US.
“There were frustrations from US officials about Iran not making the arrangements for Asgari, as well as other Iranian citizens the US wants to return,” Basravi said.
“And Iran has been criticising US officials over and over again in the last few weeks and months for not making a speedy return of its citizens.”
It is believed 20 Iranian citizens are being held in the US, and five Americans in Iranian custody, he added.
“There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether or not any of the prisoners being held in Iran will be released as Asgari is on a plane making his way home,” said Basravi.
“But there are many other people saying the release of Asgari is basically a function of the US ‘system’, not necessarily something that would lead to a prisoner swap. Nonetheless, there is some speculation that this could result in some sort of exchange of citizens, and the Iranian government no doubt would use Asgari’s return as an opportunity to gain some positive publicity.”
Among the US citizens held in Iran is US Navy veteran Michael White, who 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 in the care of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests. White is among tens of thousands of prisoners granted medical furloughs by Iran, which was one of the first countries hit hard by the spreading coronavirus.
In December last year, Iran released a Princeton University graduate student held for three years on widely disputed espionage charges in exchange for the release of another detained Iranian scientist.
In March, the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran 13 years ago on an unauthorised CIA mission, said they had been informed by US officials that Levinson was probably dead. They have not elaborated on how they made that determination.
Westerners and Iranian dual-nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in Iran, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
The release comes as the US under President Donald Trump continues a “maximum pressure” campaign targeting Iran after unilaterally withdrawing from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.
In the time since, the two countries have seen a series of escalating incidents, including the US drone attack killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad, and an Iranian ballistic missile attack targeting US troops in Iraq.