May 5, 2020 / 9:55 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. expected to deport Iranian professor acquitted of sanctions busting - officials

WASHINGTON, May 5 (Reuters) - The United States is expected to deport Iranian professor Sirous Asgari, who was acquitted of stealing trade secrets, once he receives medical clearance to leave, a U.S. and an Iranian official told Reuters on Tuesday.

Asgari might be part of a rare prisoner swap between foes Iran and the United States. Iranian sources have told Reuters that Tehran is prepared to take part in a swap.

The 59-year-old Asgari, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus around 10 days ago, is under the medical care of U.S. immigration authorities and awaits a health clearance to travel, said Abolfazl Mehrabadi, an Iranian diplomat who is deputy director of Tehran’s interests section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.

“We are working and cooperating with the immigration office to deport him as soon as possible to Iran,” Mehrabadi said.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declined to provide a specific timeline but confirmed that the agency was expecting to carry out his removal from the country when Asgari was medically cleared to travel.

Connecting flights that normally carry deportees to Iran have been canceled and the agency is waiting for service to resume, the spokesman said. He did not say how long this could take.

The ICE spokesman, who asked not to be named, said Asgari had tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently in quarantine, receiving care.

A federal judge in Ohio acquitted Asgari, a materials science professor, last November of stealing trade secrets in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in March urged the United States to release Asgari, who he said was one of several Iranian scientists taken “hostage” by the United States.

Three Iranian officials said a prisoner swap between the two countries is in the works. Michael White, a U.S. navy veteran who has been detained in Iran since 2018, is a likely candidate to be swapped. He was released from prison in mid-March on medical furlough but remains in Iran.

If a swap goes ahead, that would be a rare instance of cooperation in an otherwise deeply frayed relationship between the United States and Iran, which have grown more hostile towards each other since President Donald Trump took office.

The U.S. State Department referred questions about Asgari’s release to ICE but said: “Bringing home wrongfully detained Americans is a top priority for President Trump. We work with the Swiss every day on the health, safety, and release of U.S. citizens wrongfully held in Iran.”

Because the United States and Iran lack diplomatic relations, Switzerland looks after U.S. interests with Tehran. (Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Ted Hesson Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed Editing by Alistair Bell)

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