The release of US veteran Michael White by the Iranian government this week made headlines around the world. But considerably less attention has been paid to his counterpart in the prisoner exchange: Dr. Matteo Taerri, also known as Majid Taheri, an Iranian-American cosmetic surgeon who was arrested in November 2018 on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.
News of Taerri’s release surfaced hours after White’s release was confirmed by US President Donald Trump. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the news on Twitter, saying he was “pleased” that both men would “soon be joining their families”.
This semi-official response belied the fact that the Iranian government has never mentioned Taerri’s 16-month detention before – or the fact that although Taerri still has family in Iran, according to his own court submissions, the Florida and Georgia-based doctor fled “persecution” in Iran more than three decades ago.
Taerri was indicted in October 2018 for attempting to transport a microfilter used in medical research to Iran back in August 2016, without the correct permissions. Federal prosecutors waited more than two years before pursuing criminal charges.
How and why did this come about? And what next for Taerri, to say nothing of US-Iran relations after this much-vaunted agreement?
A High-Flying Doctor Who Maintained Ties to Iran
Court papers filed by Taerri’s Florida lawyer, Steven P. Berne, and federal prosecutors describe Taerri as “a political asylum seeker” who was born in Iran and, “after fleeing persecution” in 1986, spent a year in Germany before claiming political asylum in Canada.
He completed his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Quebec and first came to the US in 1997, later gaining qualifications from the University of Munich, Georgetown University and the University of Florida. He continued to make intermittent trips to Iran, where his mother and five siblings still reside.
Over the years Taerri worked at clinics in Tampa, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia as a cosmetic dermatologist, carrying out procedures such as liposuction and vein sculpting to clients paying up to ten thousand dollars for a single procedure.
Online reviewers commented on his kind and attentive manner down the years, though the results appear to have been mixed. “Dr. Matteo spent a lot of time making me feel comfortable and was very informative about my injections,” wrote one in 2011. Another, writing in 2012, was more circumspect: “He really is a good person and cares for his patients. But he is definitely not a good doctor and not fit to perform any cosmetic procedures. It’s cheap, that’s why I fell for it.”
Taerri’s own company, Advanced Anti-Aging and Aesthetic Medicine, is now offline. But an archived version of its website lists his membership in 12 different professional bodies, adding that he “was named the top Aesthetic Physician in Atlanta in 2015.”
The Sudden Indictment
According to court documents filed in Tampa and Atlanta, Taerri attracted the attention of the US authorities in 2015. In a conversation with agents of the US Bureau of Industry and Security, he volunteered that he had shipped or hand-carried samples of biological enzymes to Iran for his nephew’s medical research in the past.
During the interview Taerri was warned he might need a licence to ship the proteins, a form of growth hormone, from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, on the basis that they could be used in activities related to chemical, nuclear or biological weapons. No action was taken at the time, however.
Then on October 24, 2018, Taerri was indicted for attempting to export a single Prostak Filter Module – an tiny 0.2-centimeter square “microfilter”, used to avoid exposing patients to harmful particles during intravenous drug therapies – to his nephew in Iran on or around August 4, 2016. He said it was for “humanitarian” vaccine research purposes. But he was found to have contravened US sanctions because he had not secured permission, and the device could have been used in chemical or biological warfare.
His nephew in Iran was a medical student under Dr. Masoud Soleimani, a world-renowned stem cell researcher at the University of Tehran. On the same day two other Iranian-born US citizens, Yale University scholar Mahboobe Ghaedi and Kentucky medical researcher Maryam Jazayeri, were also indicted and accused of trying to smuggle human growth hormone samples to Soleimani in 2016. Soleimani himself was also subject to a behind-closed-doors indictment and arrested on October 25, 2018 after arriving in the country for a year-long research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic.
In the time that elapsed between the alleged offences and the arrest, President Donald Trump had been elected and withdrawn the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the nuclear deal with Iran. This led some lawyers to suspect the criminal charges were politically motivated. “I don’t see any evidence that there was criminal intent here,” Clif Burns, a Washington-based national-security law specialist, told Nature journal. “They may see this as an easy case. Typically, if you say ‘Iran’ enough in front of a jury, you'll get the verdict you want.”
No Release – Then a U-Turn
Taerri was also charged with illegally structuring more than $275,000 in deposits to multiple bank accounts to avoid federal reporting requirements. The case was rendered murkier as the Tampa clinic where he worked was shut down, and his housemate, who ran the clinic, arrested by federal authorities in Florida on charges of running an illegal “pill mill”.
From November 15, 2018 Taerri was remanded in custody at Pinellas County Jail. His Florida lawyer, Steven P. Berne, petitioned for a pretrial release, noting Taerri’s “excellent record” as a physician, otherwise spotless criminal record and ongoing health problems. This was unsuccessful and in late 2019, Taerri pled guilty to both charges, which could have carried a maximum of 20 years in prison.
As recently as March 2020 the government also dismissed concerns about Taerri’s ailing health and the risk of COVID-19 in prison. “Dr. Taerri remains a well-travelled dual citizen with financial resources and extensive connections abroad,” the District Court determined. “The humanitarian purpose of the device Dr. Taerri sought to export does not alleviate the factors that make him a significant risk.”
But on April 3 this year, the decision not to grant Taerri freedom on bond was abruptly reversed by the Justice Department. In a decision “solely based on the significant foreign policy interests of the United States”, he was ordered to post a $20,000 cash bond, released from jail and placed on home confinement with an electronic tag.
As Michael White flew to Switzerland, US prosecutors completed the American part of the now-publicised arrangement with Iran by asking a judge to sentence Taerri to time served. Massoud Soleimani was also exchanged late last year for Xiyue Wang, an American citizen held on "espionage" charges in Iran, while Ghaedi and Jazayeri are also free after posting bonds of $200,000 and $250,000, and charges against them were quietly dismissed last December.
A Happy Ending – or Cause for Cynicism?
In principle, Taerri is now free to travel to Iran. His lawyer, Steven P. Berne, told Reuters negotiations on the exchange had proceeded quietly for months. “It’s a happy ending for all,” he said.
The news also coincided with the release and return to Iran of Cyrus Asghari, an Iranian citizen and scientist imprisoned in the United States for three years. Authorities on both sides stressed this had no connection to White’s release, despite the offer of such an exchange having been made by Iranian officials last month.
The news has been lauded by elected politicians and lay commentators alike, with Donald Trump proclaiming in a celebratory tweet that he would “never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas”.