An American doctoral student who spent over three years held in an Iranian prison joined Algemeiner members for a conversation on Wednesday, where he shared details of his captivity and discussed what he saw as a “moral responsibility” to tell the world about the regime in Tehran.
In 2015, then a PhD student at Princeton University, Xiyue Wang received a rare visa from Iran to study Persian and perform archival research related to his studies on Islamic Inner Asia under Russian rule. After three months working in the country unmolested, Wang received a call from the police just hours before his planned return to the US.
“‘You’re not going home today,’” Wang recounted the voice saying. His passport and computer were confiscated, and without any due process or opportunity to contact his wife in the US, he was detained for a harrowing 18 days in solitary confinement.
“It was devastating, it was so quiet,” he said. “I have never been in a such quiet place … you simply just go crazy.”
Those traumatizing days in limbo soon turned into a ten-year sentence on baseless charges of espionage. As if to highlight the absurdity of holding an earnest scholar of the country’s history as an enemy of the state, Wang’s prior support for a US presidential visit to Iran was used as “evidence” in court that the young American sought regime change.
He ultimately spent 40 months in the infamous Evin Prison — notorious for the use of torture and other human rights abuses — before being freed in December, 2019, exchanged for an Iranian scientist arrested by the US for violating sanctions against Iran.
Now back at Princeton and serving as a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at American Enterprise Institute, Wang has been an outspoken critic of the Biden administration’s efforts to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal struck with world powers by President Barack Obama in 2015 and left by his successor in 2018.
But unlike most critics of the ongoing talks in Vienna to revive the deal, Wang knows firsthand about the subject of his warnings.
Wang said that his captivity gave him a one-of-a-kind education into Iranian society and politics — a kind of “compulsory fieldwork” for the PhD student, as he wryly called it.
Wang served with prisoners from all walks of life — from money launderers evading sanctions whose relations with the regime turned sour, to ordinary businesspeople, senior diplomats and even religious fundamentalists who had gone too far in demanding that the regime live up to its professed ideals. All of these interactions, aided by Wang’s quickly improving Persian language skills, gave him a “kaleidoscopic” view of the country.
What he learned was sobering for the young graduate student who had high hopes for the 2015 nuclear deal. “I went into Iran very naively,” Wang explained, thinking that once the US began to change, the Islamic Republic would follow suit.
“I learned that the Iranian hardliners were not interested in any sort of rapprochement or reconciliation with the United States,” Wang said.
He came to conclude that the regime’s posture towards the US would continue irrespective of American policy, due to its own internal strategic considerations. “I believe they survive and thrive and find their regime’s legitimacy in perpetuating animosity against the United States,” he said.
Wang also explained that his time as a prisoner in Iran changed his prior conceptions of Israel, and its posture towards the Islamic Republic.
“I was sympathetic to the cause of Israel as a nation state, but I was also critical of Israel, just like most academics would be, before I went to Iran. But then, having experienced the regime firsthand, having seen how the regime conducts things — I realized that Israel’s behavior in relation to Iran is completely understandable,” Wang said.
As a “revolutionary regime under the banner of Islam” seeking to claim that mantle for the Islamic world, he argued, Iran was required to hold up Israel as its primary enemy, over the issue of Jerusalem. But that hostility was not widely held among ordinary Iranians.
“To be very frank with you, I have never seen a single person that expressed a genuine hatred of Israel in Iran,” Wang said. He found that most Iranians he met saw Israel as irrelevant to their daily lives, with many even expressing admiration for the achievements of the small nation. “I think most Iranians would look forward to one day, when the regime is gone, to reestablish good relations with Israel.”
While Wang’s own understanding of Iran and regional issues was reshaped by his captivity, he found that upon returning to academic life in the United States, those new views were not easily accepted by all of his peers — despite his rare position, for a Western scholar, as someone who has spent significant time inside the country.
He mentioned one established Iran expert who had admitted to Wang that he could not fully make public his rather critical views of the Iranian regime, for fear of ostracism within the academic community.
“Middle Eastern Studies to a certain extent looks like the emperor’s new clothes: everybody knows the emperor is naked, but nobody will say it,” Wang said. “I don’t think I had any real influence or impact on the way that Iran is being perceived or interpreted by most Iran scholars.”
Wang said that as he served what was originally handed down as a ten-year sentence, it was often his fellow prisoners who gave him some measure of resolve.
“Different people would comfort me, saying, ‘Although we all got ten years, you are American. Rest assured that you will go home sooner than we do. But promise us that when you go home, you tell the world, tell the American public what Iran really is. We count on you. We will not have that opportunity; but you are American, you can. You will have that opportunity to inform the world how evil this regime is,’” Wang recounted.
“I was genuinely worried when President [Joe] Biden expressed his determination to return to the Iran deal, no matter what cost. And I think it’s nothing less than a moral responsibility for me to say what I see is right.”
After he was released, Wang said he was invited to debrief then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his time in Iran, and to speak to the teams of Special Envoy Brian Hook and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien as a unique source of firsthand insight.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the current administration has any interest to listen to what I have to say, because no one in the current administration has ever reached out to me,” Wang said. “But they don’t seem to care … I think the current administration has already known what they would do well before they were elected.”
1st Published in Algemeiner.