Iranian professor acquitted of sanctions busting leaves U.S., Zarif says

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks on during a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Russia December 30, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

DUBAI (Reuters) - An Iranian professor imprisoned in the United States after being acquitted of stealing trade secrets has left the country and is on his way back to Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an Instagram post on Tuesday.

“Hello friends. Good news. Dr. Sirous Asgari is in the air on a flight back to Iran. Congratulations to his wife and family,” wrote Zarif, who urged Washington in March to release Asgari, who he said was one of several Iranian scientists taken “hostage” by the United States.

In April 2016, the materials science professor was indicted as U.S. federal prosecutors accused him of stealing trade secrets in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

A federal judge in Ohio acquitted Asgari in November and U.S. authorities said earlier last month that the 59-year-old Asgari, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus in April, was expected to be deported by the United States once he received medical clearance to leave.

Reports about Asgari’s upcoming expulsion had raised questions about whether he was part of a prisoner swap between Washington and Tehran but State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus rejected the possibility.

“As the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed today, Mr. Asgari is not and has never been a participant in any prisoner swap with Iran,” she said.

Both countries have called for the release of prisoners because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Iran is the worst-hit country in the Middle East, while the United States has reported the highest number of deaths and infections worldwide from the virus.

In mid-March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tehran was considering freeing some U.S. citizens as Michael White, a U.S. navy veteran who has been detained in Iran since 2018, was released from prison on medical furlough. He remains in Iran.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Editing by Kim Coghill and Alistair Bell