The first American detained overseas during the Trump administration is being held in one of the president’s least favorite places: Iran.
On Wednesday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged that it had arrested Michael White, a US Navy veteran, in the northeastern city of Mashhad. A lot of questions remain, such as why White is being detained, and how long he’s been imprisoned. It’s also unclear how White even received a visa to Iran, a country that severely restricts the number of American visitors.
What is clear, though, is that Iran’s move could ratchet up tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Trump’s hardline approach toward the Islamic Republic, which has included actions like withdrawing from the Obama-negotiated nuclear deal last year, tanked the few good feelings between the two countries. Now they are in the midst of a brutal economic war due to Trump’s increased sanctions on Tehran, as well as a geopolitical struggle over Iran’s presence in Syria.
White is alive, according to his mother. That means the US will aim to bring him home — which will likely prove a significant challenge for Trump.
He’s prided himself on his administration’s ability to negotiate the return of Americans held elsewhere. Last October, for example, Trump succeeded in pressuring Turkey to release the pastor Andrew Brunson.
Iran, however, likely won’t succumb too easily. After all, the US already has put significant pressure on the country, and experts say holding White allows Tehran to send a message: that the US and its European allies should stop their campaigns against it.
It’s therefore possible that White will remain Iran’s prisoner for the foreseeable future.
Michael White likely went to Iran to see a woman. We don’t know what happened next.
The Pentagon didn’t respond to a request for more information about White, but there are some limited details available about his background.
White’s mother, who only learned of her son’s whereabouts three weeks ago, told the New York Times he’s been missing since he didn’t board his flight home in July. It’s likely that Iran detained the 46-year-old native of Imperial Beach, California, around this time.
White now joins three other Americans — including two of Iranian descent — who are incarcerated in the Islamic Republic. One American, Robert Levinson, has been held in Iran for more than a decade.
White had visited Iran about five or six times before, his mother said, although it’s unclear if he was harassed by the regime during those previous trips. Three of those visits, his family said, were to visit his Iranian girlfriend. Ivar Farhadi, a cyberactivist and former prisoner in Iran who says he met White, told CBS News on Thursday that the US veteran was arrested on his way to Turkey to marry her. Farhadi also said that White is suffering psychologically and was held alongside dangerous criminals.
It’s worth noting that it’s extremely hard for Americans to obtain a visa to travel to Iran. It raises questions about why White had success obtaining visas, what he did while he was in Iran, and if he was routinely monitored by Iran’s regime.
White’s family is worried about his safety, and his health. “He just got over cancer and I’m worried about his condition,” White’s mother told CBS News. “It’s very scary to me.”
That will surely add some urgency to any American effort get him out of Iran. On Thursday, a State Department spokesperson told me that they were aware of reports of a US citizen detained in Iran, and that they considered the safety and security of US citizens abroad their highest priority.
“This is a regular tactic used by Tehran”
So why would Iran arrest White at all? Yes, it’s certainly possible he did something illegal. In fact, relations between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are against Iranian law, according to the State Department’s website, along with adultery and sex outside of marriage. Iran sometimes gives people who commit those crimes the death penalty.
But Phillip Smyth, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me it’s more likely Tehran arrested White to use him as leverage against the US and its European allies.
Here’s why: Iran’s economy has faltered since Trump reimposed sanctions when he withdrew from the nuclear deal. The US mainly targets Tehran’s oil exports — its greatest source of revenue — leading to civil unrest in the country and problems for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In an embarrassing moment, Rouhani had to defend his own performance as president in front of Iran’s parliament last August as the economy sputtered.
On top of that, European countries have begun to criticize Tehran’s behavior partially at America’s behest. For example, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said on Tuesday that Iran was behind two assassinations — one in 2015 and another in 2017 — in the Netherlands. The country’s intelligence agencies found “strong indications that Iran was involved in the assassinations of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin,” Blok wrote in a statement to the country’s parliament.
The US has asked its European friends to cut ties with Tehran and isolate it even further, though it’s not clear if the Netherlands openly lambasted Iran because the Trump administration encouraged it to, or because it is genuinely angry about the killings.
In a sense, Iran is backed into a corner, and it’s acting out in one of its horrifyingly favorite ways. Taking captives “is a regular tactic used by Tehran,” Smyth said. Indeed, during the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranians held Americans hostage at the US embassy there for 444 days. Iran has taken prisoners for decades as a way to send political messages. And during President Barack Obama’s administration, Iran habitually harassed US ships — and in 2015 even captured sailors.
It seems, now, that Iran has turned to an old method to extract new concessions from Trump in the form of sanctions relief, or to ease the pressure from the US’s European allies. Talks between Washington and Tehran have stopped since the US left the Iran deal, though, so it will be hard to decipher what Iran really wants in exchange for White’s return.