On December 7, 2019, an American graduate student named Xiyue Wang was freed after 40 months in an Iranian prison. His captors roused him in his cell early that morning and put him on a plane to Zurich. The Swiss had offered to mediate a trade for Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist arrested by the United States for violating sanctions against Iran. At the airport, the Iranian ambassador to Switzerland exchanged a few words with Wang in Persian and told him, “Well, at least you learned Persian in prison.” Wang, who considers his treatment by the Iranians to have been torture, was unsmiling. The ambassador then turned to address the Swiss and objected to Soleimani’s arrest. Wang was meant to keep silent, but instead asserted his right of reply, unexpectedly, in French. “Excuse me,” he said, acidly. “But I did nothing wrong. I went to Iran to do research with the permission of the Foreign Ministry, but Iranian intelligence arrested me and forced me into confessing that I was a spy.” The Iranian ambassador was taken aback. “It seems Mr. Wang has not only learned Persian in prison,” a Swiss diplomat observed, “but French as well.”
Since then, Wang has persisted in his refusal to shut up. Long-term hostages who make it home physically intact tend to follow one of two models. The first is to try to pick up life where it stopped—to go back to family (Wang is married and has a son, whom he did not see from ages 3 to 6) and try to keep the ordeal from defining you. The other is to throw oneself into the identity of an ex-hostage, and speak loudly about lessons learned and knowledge gained. Now back in the United States, Wang has reunited with his family and resumed his doctoral studies at Princeton, but otherwise he has chosen the latter path. On Twitter, he is almost compulsively responsive to potential shifts in Iran policy. Because Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations for more than 40 years, virtually no Americans—including those working on Iran policy in the U.S. government—have significant experience in the country. Whenever there is a hint of a change in President Joe Biden’s policy or personnel working on Iran, one can rely on Wang to give his view, confidently but rarely stridently, informed by 40 months of involuntary fieldwork.