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Navy veteran from San Diego has been imprisoned in Iran, authorities there confirm

Navy veteran from San Diego has been imprisoned in Iran, authorities there confirm
A handout photo shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting Iranian voluntary forces at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. (Iranian Supreme Leader's Office)

Iranian authorities confirmed Wednesday that a U.S. Navy veteran has been detained in Iran, making him the latest foreigner with ties to America to be imprisoned.

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Bahram Qasemi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told state news agency IRNA that Michael White, 46, has been imprisoned in the eastern city of Mashhad at the notorious Vakilabad Prison, which is known for its executions of drug traffickers, and that his case is still being reviewed.

The formal announcement comes weeks after an activist who was imprisoned alongside White took to social media to announce the veteran’s arrest.

Ivar Farhadi, a 30-year-old activist, said that White, who is from San Diego, has been imprisoned since last summer. Farhadi said he was outside playing volleyball during a break when he first met White in prison in October.

“I was surprised to see an American in this prison,” Farhadi said. “He was kept in a cell with around 20 people.”

While in prison, the Persian-speaking Farhadi said he was able to speak with White with the help of another prisoner who translated into English for him.

White told him that he had visited Iran three times to see his girlfriend. He also said that White told him he had been arrested at the international airport in Mashhad, on the day he was supposed to leave Iran to go to Turkey with his Iranian girlfriend.

Farhadi said White was concerned his family thought he was missing since he wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. He also told Farhadi that he suffers from a tumor in his neck.

Farhadi last saw White before being released on bail in November. He decided to flee to Turkey after he was sentenced to six years for spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic.

In mid-December, after settling down in Turkey, Farhadi took to Twitter to get the message out about White.

A few weeks later, Farhadi got in touch with a journalist who writes for IranWire, an online publication written by young Iranians both inside and outside of Iran.

IranWire reported earlier this week that White had been arrested.

White’s mother said that she only found out three weeks ago from State Department officials that her son was in prison in Iran, the New York Times reported. She did not respond to queries from the Los Angeles Times.

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The State Department confirmed this week that it is aware of reports that a U.S. citizen is being held in Iran.

Qasemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said Americans were notified about White’s arrest soon after it happened via the American mission inside the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. The United States broke off formal diplomatic relations with Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, and Switzerland has represented U.S. interests in Tehran.

According to a nonprofit website dedicated to helping veterans, White served 13 years in the U.S. Navy, working in aviation maintenance administration. After retiring, White attended San Diego State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science and hoped to go to law school in the future.

White is the eighth known foreigner with ties to the United States currently being held in Iran and the first to be taken during the Trump administration.

Hard-liners in Iran’s establishment typically hold prisoners with Western ties as bargaining chips for future negotiations. White’s arrest is likely to escalate tensions between Iran and the United States, tensions that are already rocky following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal that sought to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.

“White’s background is the kind of person that Iranian intelligence would take hostage for future negotiations,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Center for Human Rights in Iran. “We’ve seen it over and over again. They collect hostages with the hopes that they’ll bring some future deals.”

The last time Americans being held in Iran were freed was in January 2016. Three Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were freed in a prisoner exchange that came shortly after Tehran reached an agreement with world powers over its nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions.

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