June 2 (UPI) -- An Iranian scientist held in the United States for months after he was acquitted in a trade secrets case has been deported and sent back to Iran, officials in Tehran said Tuesday.
Sirous Asgari was imprisoned for more than four years on charges that he violated federal sanctions. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday Asgari was en route back to the Middle Eastern nation.
"Sirous Asgari was in the air on a flight back to Iran," Zarif wrote in an Instragram post. "Congratulations to his wife and his esteemed family."
Asgari, a materials scientist who attended school in the United States, was accused of trying to steal secret research from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, which had been working on a military project with the U.S. Navy.
A professor at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Asgari was indicted in 2016. He was ultimately acquitted in 2019 but remained in prison due to an expired visa.
The scientist's departure for Iran came earlier than expected.
Asgari's family and attorneys said he contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated in Louisiana. He was freed from custody on May 11, when Zarif said he could return to Iran if he tested negative for the coronavirus disease.
U.S. officials said they tried to deport Asgari in December but the Iranian government didn't certify his passport until February. The coronavirus pandemic also delayed his return, they said.
The case led to speculation that Asgari was being leveraged by U.S. officials to negotiate a prisoner swap involving Americans held in Iran -- possibly Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who's now at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran after coming down with COVID-19.
There was no immediate indication that Asgari's return is part of a prisoner swap.