WASHINGTON — Michael White had only recently arrived in a grim Iranian jail when a curious fellow prisoner, an English-speaking Iranian, approached him in the courtyard for a conversation.
The American did not reveal much at first, but it was the beginning of an unlikely friendship between White, a Navy veteran imprisoned on spying charges he says were unfounded, and Mahdi Vatankhah, a young Iranian political activist whose positions on social issues had drawn his government's ire.
As the men connected behind bars over a shared interest in politics and human rights, they developed a bond that proved vital for both.
Vatankhah, while in custody and after his release, helped White by providing White's mother with crucial, firsthand accounts about her son's status in prison and by passing along letters White had written while he was locked up. Once freed, White did not forget. He pushed successfully for Vatankhah’s admission to the United States, allowing the men to be reunited last spring inside a Los Angeles airport, something neither could have envisioned when they first met in prison years earlier.
“He risked his life to get the information out for me when I was in the prison in Iran. He really, really did,” White said in an interview alongside Vatankhah. “I told him I would do everything I could in my power to get him here because I felt, one, that would be for his safety in his own life. And also I felt he could be a great contributing member of society here.”
This year, White received permission for Vatankhah to live temporarily in the U.S. under a government program known as humanitarian parole, which allows people in for urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit.
Vatankhah told AP he had dreamed about coming to the U.S. ever since he could remember. When he landed, “It was like the best moment of my life. My whole life changed.”
White, 50, a Southern California native who spent 13 years in the Navy, was arrested in Iran in 2018 after traveling to the country to pursue a romantic relationship with a woman he met online. He was jailed on various charges, including espionage accusations that he calls bogus, as well as allegations of insulting Iran's supreme leader.
He endured what he says was torture and sexual abuse, an ordeal he documented in a handwritten diary that he secretly maintained behind bars, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in what the U.S. government has said was a wrongful detention.
Vatankhah, now 24, said he had been in and out of prison since he was a teenager because of his involvement in left-leaning causes and vocal criticism of the Iranian government, including through protests, social media posts and university newspaper pieces. He met White in 2018 after one such arrest when Vatankhah faced accusations of spreading propaganda against Tehran's government.
Though Vatankhah was later released, he was arrested again, this time winding up in the same cell as White in Iran's Mashhad prison.
During the course of their friendship, Vatankhah helped White navigate his imprisonment and better understand the judicial system, functioning as an interpreter to help him communicate with guards and other inmates. In early 2020, while Vatankhah was out on furlough, he also became a vital conduit to the outside world for White.
Using contact information White had given him, Vatankhah got in touch with Jonathan Franks, a consultant in the U.S. for families of American hostages and detainees who was working on White’s case and later helped spearhead the humanitarian parole process for Vatankhah. He also spoke with White's mother and smuggled out letters White had written.
The detailed information about White, his status and his health — he suffered from cancer and COVID-19 in prison — came at a crucial time, providing a proof-of-life of sorts at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran due to a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led the expeditionary Quds Force of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
White was released in a June 2020 prisoner swap, exchanged for an American-Iranian physician imprisoned in the U.S. for violating American sanctions laws. Vatankhah, released the same year, made his way to Turkey.
White argued in his March application on Vatankhah's behalf that his friend met the criteria for humanitarian parole because, despite having relocated to Turkey, he was continuing to face harassment on account of his political viewpoints.
Vatankhah wrote in his own petition that the situation was unsafe for him in Turkey. He noted that Turkish police had raided his home and that he remained at risk of deportation to Iran.
Paris Etemadi Scott, a California lawyer who has worked with White and Vatankhah and filed the humanitarian parole application on the Iranian's behalf, said Vatankhah's assistance to an American — a veteran, no less — enhanced the legitimacy and urgency of his petition because it added to the potential that Vatankhah could face imminent harm.
While many applicants do not have significant supporting documentation, “Mahdi had this amazing amount of evidence to show that he was in fact incarcerated over and over again,” she said.
A State Department spokesman said in a statement that the office of the department's special presidential envoy for hostage affairs had worked hard to secure White's release in 2020, and after learning of Vatankhah's case, “worked hand-in-hand with multiple partners in the U.S. government,” including the White House National Security Council and Department of Homeland Security, to ensure his arrival in the U.S.
Vatankhah is now living in San Diego, where White is from. Vatankhah said his humanitarian parole is good for one year, but he already has applied for asylum, which would allow him to remain in the U.S. He's obtained a work permit and found work as a caregiver.
He's also enjoying freedom to share his political views freely without fear of retribution.
“I like to express my ideas here where I can. I can continue to use my freedom to talk against the Iranian regime.”