Homeland security questions whether Tehran wants return of Sirous Asgari
Patrick Wintour – The Guardian
A potential deal to release a renowned Iranian scientist from a US jail and return him to Iran appears to be in danger of breaking down after a senior US official questioned whether Tehran really wanted him returned.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, claimed on Monday that Sirous Asgari had been freed by US authorities and would be able to return to Iran immediately if he tested negative for coronavirus.
But his remarks were dismissed as “BS” by a senior US Department of Homeland Security official, who accused Iran of slow-walking a deal.
A well-regarded materials scientist, Asgari was acquitted on charges of stealing US trade secrets but remains in immigration detention where he contracted the coronavirus.
Zarif said on Monday that Asgari “has been acquitted of false charges and we have been very active in preparing the ground for his return. If his coronavirus is negative he could return on the first flight”.
Zarif’s statement was reported on the margins of an Iranian parliament foreign and security committee meeting in Tehran.
Speaking generally about the return of Iranian prisoners held in the US, Zarif said: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to exchange all Iranian prisoners in the United States and other countries, imprisoned under American pressure, with American prisoners in Iran.”
He repeated Iran’s position that further talks with the US were not necessary for a prisoner swap between Iran and the US.
But the US deputy secretary for homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli , accused Zarif of stalling over Asgari, tweeting: “We have been trying to return Sirous Asgari and you suddenly wake up and say you actually want him back. You say you want all your citizens back, I call BS. How about you put your money where your mouth is? We have 11 of your citizens which are illegal aliens who have been trying to return to your country.”
He proposed Zarif charter a plane and then the US would send all 11 Iranians back.
He added: “If you have really been speaking the truth these last few weeks and you really want your citizens back then stop stalling and send the plane. The world is watching and expecting the usual outcome namely you will do nothing except keep talking.”
Asgari arrived in the US in 2017 with his wife and with valid passports and visas, but upon arrival he discovered he was being prosecuted by the US government for alleged violations of sanctions law.
After his acquittal, he was kept in jail on the basis that his visa had expired. He had offered to buy his own flight ticket home, and it looked as if he was being held until the Iranians agreed to release Americans in Iranian custody.
The US has been trying to secure the full release of a US Navy veteran, Michael White, who contracted coronavirus in jail and was then transferred to the Swiss embassy in Tehran. There was no direct swap of Asgari and White on the cards, but the progress on the cases is seen as entangled.
In an interview with the Guardian in March, Asgari accused the US immigration authorities of leaving inmates to contract coronavirus in overcrowded and dirty prisons. He said: “The way Ice [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] looks at these people is not like they are human beings, but are objects to get rid of.”
A professor at the Sharif University of Technology, a public university in Tehran, said: “The way that they have been treating us is absolutely terrifying. I don’t think many people in the US know what is happening inside this black box.”