Humanitarian? Maybe. Convenient? Perhaps, although certainly insufficient. Iran has released American veteran Michael White from prison, where he was serving a 13-year sentence for lèse majeste, but they won’t allow White to leave the country:
Iran has granted a medical furlough to a U.S. Navy veteran who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Thursday.
Michael White of Imperial Beach, California, is now in the custody of the Swiss Embassy and must remain in Iran as a condition of his furlough, which was granted as Iran works to curb the spread of coronavirus. The U.S. government will seek his full release, Pompeo said, and he called on Iran to free other Americans who remain jailed there.
A spokesman for the White family said the family was grateful to the Iranian government for an “interim humanitarian step.”
“We continue to urge them to release Michael unconditionally so that he can return to the United States to receive the advanced medical care he needs,” spokesman Jon Franks said.
This isn’t just something the Iranians are doing out of goodwill. A week ago, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif accused the US of “economic terrorism” for enforcing sanctions in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The sanctions over Iran’s nuclear-weapons development and support for terrorism prevented Iran from selling enough oil to pay for medicines and medical equipment while the COVID-19 virus killed hundreds of Iranians.
Pompeo’s response? The US would not even consider a stay on sanctions as long as the regime continues to detain Americans, Pompeo declared:
The United States calls on the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release on humanitarian grounds all wrongfully detained Americans being held in Iran. The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive.
Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens. Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency.
The Iranian regime recently released 70,000 prisoners due to the outbreak of COVID-19, demonstrating its ability to grant clemency and show mercy. Yet it continues to unjustly detain several American citizens, without cause or justification.
Today, the Washington Post reports that the sanctions are biting even deeper in the midst of the pandemic. And the US is stepping up the pressure:
Under current circumstances, the researchers said, infections would not peak until late May. The death toll could be as high as 3.5 million.
That figure might seem enough to stop anyone in their tracks. But this week, the United States announced that it would be expanding its sanctions on Iran, as well as on entities that aided the Iranian government in its trade in petrochemicals and other restricted activities. It’s a strategy that worries allies and enemies alike.
The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Britain was privately pressing the United States to ease sanctions on Iran amid the crisis, while China has publicly called on the United States to lift its Iran sanctions.
But the United States, which reimposed sanctions on Iran after President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and other nations in 2018, has refused; on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Iran to release U.S. citizens being held in the country “as a humanitarian gesture, given the risk that is posed” by the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s a simple fix for this: stop holding Americans hostage.
This appears to be a signal from Tehran that they’re looking to cut a deal. It’s not the only release of a foreign national this week, either; the Iranians also released a British subject who had worked at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, although they apparently structured it as a two-week furlough. Even White’s release now appears to be a furlough rather than a full parole, only long enough to have the Swiss medical staff at the embassy check out a cough and fever:
White has had a fever and a cough, according to his family, and he is now in the care of the Swiss embassy, which has looked after U.S. interests and citizens in Iran since the U.S. embassy in Tehran was shuttered in 1979.
He will undergo medical evaluation and treatment in Swiss care, according to his family and Pompeo. But as a condition of his parole, he will not be permitted to leave the country — likely to return to Iranian custody instead.
This seems like a tease from Tehran, a way to use hostages by double-dipping — seizing them first, then temporarily releasing them to gain leverage with the US and UK. If you don’t lift sanctions, the implicit threat goes, they’ll be back in prison! The problem for the Iranians is that they don’t actually have that kind of leverage. Their Wuhan Flu epidemic is so widespread that they’re warning millions could die, and key officials in the government are already sick or have already died of COVID-19. If this continues, Iranians might take to the streets to get rid of the regime that trapped them politically, economically, and now medically.
If they want the US to back off, furloughs won’t cut it. They will have to release all their hostages first — while they’re still able to make that call. Time’s running out, and the clock isn’t the enemy of the US in this instance.