DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A U.S. Navy veteran from California has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran, his lawyer said Saturday, becoming the first American known to be imprisoned there since President Donald Trump took office.
Though the case against Michael R. White remains unclear, it comes as Trump has taken a hard-line approach to Iran by pulling the U.S. out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Iran, which in the past has used its detention of Westerners and dual nationals as leverage in negotiations, has yet to report on White’s sentence in state-controlled media. Its mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Obviously the concern is that the Iranians are using this as a tool against the United States, given the other individuals who are in custody,” Washington-based lawyer Mark Zaid told The Associated Press.
White’s arrest was first reported by IranWire, an online news service run by Iranian expatriates, which interviewed a former Iranian prisoner who said he met White at Vakilabad Prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad in October.
In the time since, White has been convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private information online, Zaid said. He said the information surrounding the case remained vague. He learned of the sentence from the U.S. State Department, which in turn learned of it from the Swiss government, which looks after American interests in Iran.
The State Department said late Saturday that it was “aware of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Iran.”
“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad,” it said, without elaborating on the case.
The New York Times first reported White’s 10-year sentence.
White’s mother, Joanne White, had told the Times that her son, who lives in Imperial Beach, California, went to Iran to see a woman she described as his girlfriend and had booked a July 27 flight back home to San Diego via the United Arab Emirates. She filed a missing person report with the State Department after he did not board the flight. She added that he had been undergoing treatment for a neck tumor and has asthma.
White worked as a cook in the U.S. Navy and left the service about a decade ago.
Zaid said Saturday that White apparently traveled to Mashhad without informing the woman in advance. It remains difficult for Americans to get visas to Iran, 40 years after the Islamic Revolution and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis.
“That’s certainly our concern, that’s he’s being used as a pawn,” Zaid said. “But we’re more in a confused state than an aware state.”
There are three other Americans known to be held in Iran.
Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his octogenarian father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative who served as governor of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province under the U.S.-backed shah, are both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges. Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly “infiltrating” the country while doing doctoral research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty.
Iranian-American Robin Shahini was released on bail in 2017 after staging a hunger strike while serving an 18-year prison sentence for “collaboration with a hostile government.” Shahini has since return to America and is now suing Iran in U.S. federal court.
Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage-related charges.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, though his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.