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 this year 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 I also felt he could get 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…