He went to Iran to visit his girlfriend, whom he had met online, and was arbitrarily detained, family spokesman Jonathan Franks said. Joanne White has been unable to communicate with him. "She's very worried that's he's not going to make it," Franks told The Associated Press.
Franks said his mother "implores" the Iranian government to release him so he can get the "specialized medical care he needs." Michael White worked as a cook for the Navy and left the service about a decade ago, Franks said. The family wants to make clear that he is not a spy and has never been one. He recently worked as a janitor.
Iran confirmed Wednesday that it is holding White at a prison. He is the first American known to be detained under President Donald Trump's administration. His mother asks the administration to make his case a priority because of his health concerns.
White's detention adds new pressure to the rising tension between Iran and the U.S., which under Trump has pursued a maximalist campaign against Tehran that includes pulling out of its nuclear deal with world powers.
Although the circumstances of White's detention remain unclear, Iran in the past has used its detention of Westerners and dual nationals as leverage in negotiations. The semi-official Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, reported the confirmation Wednesday, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.
"An American citizen was arrested in the city of Mashhad some time ago and his case was conveyed to the U.S administration on the first days" of his incarceration, Ghasemi was quoted as saying. There are four other known American citizens being held in Iran.
Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative who served as governor of Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province under the U.S.-backed shah, are both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges.
Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly "infiltrating" the country while doing doctoral research on Iran's Qajar dynasty.