Iran has confirmed media reports that U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White is being held in an Iranian prison.
“An American Citizen, named Michael White was arrested a while ago in the city of Mashhad,” the spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. “His arrest was communicated early through Interests Section of The Islamic Republic of Iran to the US government.”
It is unclear when the United States was informed of White’s arrest but his mother has told reporters that he went missing in July.
The U.S. Defense Department would not release White’s military record, citing concerns for his safety, and referred NPR to the State Department.
“We are aware of reports of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Iran,” a spokesperson for the State Department told NPR. “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad. Due to privacy considerations, we have no additional information to provide at this time.”
A digital news site called IranWire first reported about White’s status on Monday, based on an interview with a former prisoner named Ivar Farhadi who claimed to have met White at Vakilabad Prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
According to Farhadi, White said he became acquainted with an Iranian girl online and traveled to Iran three times to visit her. On the third trip, he was arrested at an international airport in Mashad and has been in prison since the summer of 2018.
Farhadi told NPR that White “didn’t know anything about his accusations.”
White spoke about having what Farhadi called a gland that White suspected of being cancerous and “didn’t seem to have any medical and nutritional services at all,” Farhadi said. He described White as fearful and depressed, “suffering psychologically,” while being held in a ward with dangerous criminals.
Farhadi said he couldn’t discuss whether White had been tortured because they were being watched. But he did not see any bruises or cuts on the American.
“According what he said to me, he was denied the right to use [the] telephone and visits and access to a lawyer.”
Farhadi said he waited until after he fled to Turkey to speak with reporters about White. “I couldn’t talk about him in Iran because I am a former political prisoner and that could put my life in danger.”
Joanne White, Michael’s mother, could not immediately be reached by NPR. In an interview with The New York Times, she said the State Department told her just three weeks ago that he was imprisoned in Iran.
He was supposed to return the United States through Dubai on July 27, but he never got on the flight, she said. She filed a missing-person report and had been communicating with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security.
“All I know is that he is alive and they were putting in a request for a consular visit by the Swiss,” she said. Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in the country, as ties between the U.S. and Iran were cut after Tehran held American diplomats hostage.
“I’m very worried about his health,” White’s mother told CBS on Tuesday. “He just got over cancer and I’m worried about his condition.”
At least three more U.S. citizens are being held in Iran, in addition to White. Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official, was detained about three years ago. “We’re dealing with an 82-year-old man who has dedicated his entire life to serving humanity,” Baquer’s son Babak Namazi told NPR.
Siamak Namazi, another son of Baquer, is being held following a clandestine trial in which he was convicted of collaborating with a hostile state.
U.N. human rights experts said both father and son were detained arbitrarily.
Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang has been imprisoned since 2016. He traveled to Tehran to research 19th-century political history.
“He was put in solitary confinement for about 20 days,” his wife, Qu Hua, told NPR. “It’s really difficult because he is subject to harsh conditions. And his physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating. He has lost weight, developed arthritis in both of his knees, suffered rashes and pains all over his body and, of course, fallen victim to depression.”
FBI agent and CIA consultant Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007.
Lawmakers began to weigh in on reports of White’s captivity this week. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to reintroduce and pass the Iran Hostage Act to make clear to our adversaries: if you take an American hostage, there will be consequences,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.