EXCLUSIVE: ZURICH -- Michael White, the first American detained in Iran during the Trump administration, has been released and tells Fox News, “It’s great to be free."
The United States Navy veteran arrived on a plane Thursday from Tehran on a Swiss government flight. He was transferred into U.S. custody here in Zurich before heading home, after nearly four months of negotiations between State Department officials and the Iranian government, according to a senior U.S. official.
Fox News was on the ground in Zurich for the transfer. The State Department’s Iran envoy Brian Hook completed the transfer and walked White off the plane, into American custody and back into freedom.
Speaking to Fox News exclusively after landing, White expressed his appreciation to the president, whom he spoke to by phone after landing.
“I want to extend my personal thanks to President Trump for his efforts both diplomatically and otherwise,” he said. “He is making America great again and I look forward to what is going to happen here in the future.”
Asked about his health, White said he is “improving” but was sick with COVID-19 while in prison. “I am recovering pretty decently, getting back into shape,” he said. “I was really in poor shape then. But I am getting a lot better as a result of Swiss embassy and all of the efforts of the Trump administration.”
White also revealed the first thing he wants to do when he gets home: “I am going to Disney World,” he said.
Earlier, President Trump announced the release shortly after the plane left Iranian airspace.
"I will never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas! Thank you Switzerland for your great assistance," he tweeted.
Switzerland is the intermediary between the U.S. and Iranian governments and facilitated negotiations to release the 48-year-old.
"We are bringing another American home," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been wrongfully jailed in Iran for nearly two years, has been released. He is now on his way back to the United States, where we look forward to reuniting him with his family."
He added: "I commend U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook for negotiating Mr. White’s release with the Iranians. I thank the Swiss government and the work of our diplomats for facilitating this successful diplomacy."
A senior U.S. official told Fox News that as part of the deal to free White, the U.S. agreed to release an Iranian-American doctor, Majid Taheri. Taheri served 16 months for violating American sanctions against Iran and was sentenced Thursday to time served. He’s lived in the U.S. for 33 years and is a medical doctor in Florida, the official said.
"The nightmare is over," White's mother said in a statement, according to the AP.
In July 2018, White says he was visiting his girlfriend in Iran when authorities there arrested him. In March 2019, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges he insulted Iran’s supreme leader and posted private photographs on social media.
In March, White, who has battled cancer and other illnesses, was initially released on a medical furlough, but he was still ordered to stay in Iran at the time.
“Michael White's a pretty tough guy. He's a cancer survivor. He has now survived two years in Iranian prison where he was beaten in prison. He then contracted in COVID and survived,” said Hook, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, who negotiated the agreement to free White. “The Iranian regime has a history of using Americans as political pawns.”
Officials say they’re still working to free other American citizens in Iran like Siamak Namazi, a businessman; his father Baquer Namazi; and Morad Tahbaz, an American environmentalist; as well as secure the remains of former FBI agent Robert Levinson. His family announced in late March that they received intelligence that Levinson had died in Iranian custody.
“It is never a linear process negotiating directly or indirectly with the Iranian regime. We have a 41-year history of being adversaries,” said Hook. “And there's been military conflict in our history.”
Top Iranian officials have recently piled on in criticizing the U.S. over the death of George Floyd.
“The crime committed against this black man is the same thing the US govt has been doing against all the world,” tweeted Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “They have done the same in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam, & many other countries. This is the US govt’s nature & character that is being exposed today. #GeorgeFloyd.”
Hook struck back.
“Let's not forget the Iranian regime sponsors more terrorism and more antisemitism than any nation in the world,” Hook told Fox News. “They have no standing to criticize the United States. For over 40 years this regime has systematically denied every Iranian their basic rights, every day of the week.”
Fox News' Sarah Tobianski contributed to this report.