Sirous Asgari was accused of stealing federal trade secrets but was acquitted last November after being held for years.
An Iranian scientist imprisoned for years in the United States despite being acquitted in a trade secrets case is on his way back to Iran on Tuesday after being deported by US authorities.
Professor Sirous Asgari was in the air on a flight back to Tehran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an Instagram post, writing: “Congratulations to his wife and his esteemed family,”
There was no immediate word on Iranian state media about the flight.
Asgari, a professor at Iran’s Sharif University of Technology, was indicted in April 2016 while on an academic research visit to the US.
He was accused by federal prosecutors of trying to steal secret research from Case Western Reserve University. The Cleveland school had been working on a project for the US Navy Office of Naval Research to create anti-corrosive stainless steel.
Asgari was ultimately acquitted in November 2019 after US District Judge James Gwin tossed out the case by prosecutors.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told The Associated Press it tried to deport Asgari on December 12 after his acquittal. However, he said, Iran refused to recognise him as legitimately Iranian or provide him with a validated passport until late February 2020.
Once Asgari received the passport, DHS made several attempts to fly him back to Iran, purchasing tickets for flights on March 10, March 18, March 23, April 1 and May 1, according to Cuccinelli. Each of those flights was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Asgari’s supporters told The Guardian newspaper in April that he contracted the coronavirus while imprisoned. He had been held at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement before his deportation.
Iran’s deputy education minister, Hossein Salar Amoli, recently said Asgari recovered from the virus and would be able to travel, state-run IRNA news agency reported.
It was unclear if Iran would release an American prisoner as part of a deal.
Assal Rad, from the National Iranian American Council, said if there was a prisoner exchange, it would mark a positive step forward in the tense relations between the rivals.
“The speculation comes from the fact that a prisoner exchange is the lowest-lying fruit in diplomacy in a situation where you want to see a relationship develop. Just a few months ago we were on the brink of war, so the idea of a prisoner exchange is always the first diplomatic step taken,” Rad told Al Jazeera.
Reporting from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi said Asgari had become “a bit of a playing card in a political game” between Iran and the US.
“There were frustrations from US officials about Iran not making the arrangements for Asgari, as well as other Iranian citizens the US wants to return,” Basravi said.
“And Iran has been criticising US officials over and over again in the last few weeks and months for not making a speedy return of its citizens.”
It is believed 20 Iranian citizens are being held in the US, and five Americans in Iranian custody, he added.
“There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether or not any of the prisoners being held in Iran will be released as Asgari is on a plane making his way home,” said Basravi.