The Princeton Historian Mugged by Reality

A man wearing a suit hugs the Chinese American graduate student Xiyue Wang in Zurich, Switzerland, on a tarmac in front of an American diplomatic jet.
U.S. Embassy Switzerland / AP

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.

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The Biden administration has signaled a willingness to unfreeze relations with Iran—to revisit the Obama-era nuclear deal, which the Trump administration halted. Wang used to think rapprochement was a good idea, and he even told his Iranian interrogators so. They accused him of trying to subvert the Iranian government from within. “I was fucking stupid,” Wang told me. “Unbelievably stupid. If I could go back, I would slap myself.” He now argues that the United States should patiently inflict pain on the Iranian government militarily and economically. “The Iranian regime is stalling for leverage,” he said. Once it is weakened and beggared, negotiation can begin.

Wang is an unusual man. Born in Beijing, he came to the United States at the age of 20 and naturalized in 2009. He studied South Asia as an undergraduate at the University of Washington and learned Hindi living in India. He studied Central Asia in graduate school at Harvard; worked for the Red Cross in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for a year; and finally landed in a doctoral program in history at Princeton in 2013, with a Sovietist named Stephen Kotkin as his adviser. “Kotkin has a tendency to admit unconventional students” with knowledge of multiple languages and regions, Wang said. These students are dispatched “like guerrilla fighters” to work on historical topics that would escape the attention of historians who have only a single focus.

In 2015, Iran gave Wang a visa to study Persian at an institute in northern Tehran. In his application, he said, he included that he intended to do archival research during the trip, for a possible dissertation on nomads on Iran’s Turkmen frontier more than 100 years ago. Princeton, he said, wanted to engage with Iran, and supported the project. (“They gave me not a single piece of cautionary advice,” Wang told me. “No ‘Be cautious.’ No ‘Don’t do anything sensitive.’”) And at first, the archive was a candyland of historical treats. “I was very excited,” he said. “I worked basically seven days a week” in the national archive when it was open. Many of the Persian documents were written in a “broken” (shekasteh) hand, notoriously difficult to read. He paid to have some photocopied for decipherment later.

In July, after four months in the country, Wang’s phone rang, and a man summoned him to a police station and instructed him to bring his passport. “The first question they asked me was ‘Are you Chinese?’” Wang said. He replied that he was American. “At that moment, they knew they could arrest me.” (The Chinese have relations with Iran, and to seize one of their citizens would disrupt that relationship.) He was allowed to leave the station, but the authorities kept his passport, and within days he was taken into custody for good, now at the notorious Evin Prison.

Forty months as a hostage was ample time for Wang to revise his opinion of the Iranian government. He was blindfolded, restrained, and physically abused. An interrogator yelled in his face, wafting oniony breath at him and ordering him to stand and sit in specific positions, as if he were a performing animal. “Think of your wife and son,” the man commanded Wang. “You will never see them again.” He was accused of stealing documents. In fact, he had made photocopies of publicly available archival records. The interrogation process, he said, left him feeling humiliated and broken down. “It made no sense to resist,” Wang told me. In the end, he figured that if he confessed, he would be betraying only himself. With no alternative, he was coerced into signing a statement that read, simply, “I am an American spy.” He was sentenced to 10 years. “I felt such a stigma. It was like I was raped.”

His captors’ complete indifference to his actual guilt or innocence rapidly revealed itself. They told him, matter-of-factly, that he was being kept solely for purposes of exchange. The regime that held him, Wang came to feel, had no intention of altering its behavior if the United States made concessions: This was its true self, and not the product of American aggression. He said he once thought that the dreadful state of Iran was “all because of something we did wrong to them,” and that a thawing of ties would empower Iranian moderates. But that view relied on what he called a “mirage” of moderation within the Iranian government. “I slowly saw: They don’t want to be our friends. They don’t want to reconcile.” In prison he watched a great deal of state propaganda. “They say it clearly,” he told me. “They want us as an enemy, because that is the reason for their existence.” To hope that Iran will stop behaving like an enemy is to hope that it will suddenly decide not to exist anymore.

Unlike many American hostages, Wang was allowed to mix with the general inmate population, a motley bunch of political prisoners and financial criminals whose stories he learned in detail. (One of them spoke French, and taught Wang well enough for him to berate the Iranian ambassador in Zurich.) To Wang’s surprise, he found that activities he thought the regime would appreciate—pursuing business and cultural ties with foreign countries, the kind of thing that his own university encouraged by sending him to Iran—often landed people in prison. The Iranian regime “needs people outside Iran to press progressive politicians for lifting of sanctions,” Wang said. But if you are in Iran and call for greater engagement, you are a threat to a regime based on its enmity with America, and you end up in a cell in Evin. “They ruthlessly suppress people who do that in Iran. And if you are arrested with them, you will realize there are so many Iranians [imprisoned] because they engage with the West.”

The Trump administration finally arranged a trade for Wang, and then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with him upon his release. Freedom, however, has been difficult. Princeton, Wang said, has been unsympathetic: He said he was informed that even though his host country had torpedoed his research project and imprisoned him for more than three years, he would still have to fulfill his grad-student responsibilities roughly on schedule. And, he said, the university’s Iran-focused faculty, who include a former Iranian government official and an Iranian cleric, have shown zero interest in his experience and haven’t invited him to speak about it.

Upon return to Princeton, a faculty member greeted him on the street and said he was sorry about what had happened. Wang appreciated the sentiment, but not what followed. The professor attributed the ordeal to the Trump administration and to American spies’ infiltration of the Iranian state. Wang, he implied, had been mistaken for one. “I was arrested three months before Trump was elected,” Wang told me. “And I was told I was a hostage—that they knew I did nothing against Iran, and that I was nothing but a pawn.” He was galled. “This is what they believe at my own university! What are they teaching their students? The facts just don’t matter.”

Iran-friendly academics, including those who encouraged him to go to Iran, were wrong. “Their theory was tested. I tested it,” Wang lamented. “It was wrong in practice. Why do you still stick to it?”

“I’m still psychologically struggling,” he said. The struggle is perceptible in his voice. Iran has let him go, but he will not let Iran go—and the sense that Iran might, in a Biden administration, be rewarded rather than punished for its serial kidnapping of innocent Americans, Iranians, and others, leaves him seething. “The homecoming has been deeply traumatic,” he told me.

“Forty months,” he continued. “That’s a lot of time to think about things.” He reflected on his months in prison but also on his months as a free man in Tehran, when he spent more time among Iranians than nearly any other American who is not a dual national. During that period, he said he met no regime supporters. “But to my surprise, when I came back to the United States, there were many sympathizers with the regime,” he said. These were in some cases people who disliked America—“people who thought because Iran is anti-American, there must be some redeemability there,” Wang told me. “Can you imagine how furious this makes me, every single day?”

I could imagine. Minutes after our conversation ended, I saw that he was back on Twitter, unsilenced and unrelenting, like he is every single day.