Anthropologists and historians don’t make natural friends. The former usually accuse the latter of engulfing themselves in documents, without getting a real feel for the places and people they study.
But Xiyue Wang, 37, the Chinese-American graduate student of history at Princeton, who Iran has sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage, was not your typical bookworm. News of the sentence was released on July 16, though Wang has been in prison since August 2016.
Perhaps this is why he struck up a friendship with an anthropology student at Princeton, who agreed to talk to IranWire on condition of anonymity. The Princeton student has known Wang for many years, from when they were both undergraduate students at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He was researching Islam in China, which meant they had a lot of common interests, he told me.
People who studied and worked with Wang remember him as a curious, hard-working student whose love for the history of the Islamic world led him to become a fluent speaker of several languages, including Persian, Uzbek and Pashto, and to travel to many countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. According to the Princeton friend, he was in Iran to research the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty when he was arrested. The world-famous scholar and author Stephen Kotkin is his academic advisor. In an email to IranWire, he called Wang a “remarkable scholar… sincere, unfailingly polite, warm, a wonderful person.” Kotkin remembers bumping into him on the Princeton campus and was impressed by the way he would “immediately bubble over about what he had just read.”
“He has boundless intellectual curiosity and drive, constantly reading more and more, never satisfied, always eager to share his discoveries, to further his and others’ understanding,” Kotkin said.
Wang’s Princeton friend says he had a general thirst for field work. “He went there to feel the soil beneath his feet, to eat the food, to be with the people, and to find books that aren’t just imperial collections,” he says. But he also says the two never discussed Wang’s trip to Iran.
“Wang is certainly not a spy. He would be lousy at it. He’s way too curious. He is always the guy to start awkward conversations or ask questions he shouldn’t,” his friend says.
It was probably the same sense of curiosity that took Xiyue Wang to Afghanistan in 2010, where he served as a Pashtun interpreter for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). According to the Tab, Princeton's edition of the student-run news network, a magazine published by the state-run China News Service ran a feature on him, highlighting that he was the only Chinese national working with the ICRC in Afghanistan at the time. The Chinese magazine said Wang had gone the extra length of helping emergency health workers in war zones and even visiting obscure locations to retrieve injured or deceased Taliban combatants for treatment or burial.
“What we really care about is that while detained by the American military, [everybody] would have enough food, water, and if you are a Muslim, whether you have religious freedom, whether you can pray, seek a doctor, or ask to see your family,” the 2010 article quoted him as saying.
Another former classmate of Xiyue Wang who studied with him at Harvard and traveled with him to Tajikistan remembers him “as an avid student and a warm, cheery person,” he told IranWire on condition of anonymity.
“Part of an Infiltration Network”
Wang was arrested in August 2016, according to reports by Mizan, the mouthpiece of the Iranian judiciary. But the news of his situation was only released yesterday, on July 16, 2017, when Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the powerful deputy head of the judiciary, said he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
As often happens with arrests in Iran, Wang’s family and Princeton University had not made the news public, hoping to secure his release through behind-the-scenes negotiations. As usual, this tactic was not successful.
Wang is said to be married with one child, but no further information about his family was available at the time of reporting.
Ejei failed to provide Xiyue Wang’s name when announcing the sentence. He simply referred to him as a “US tool of infiltration who holds double nationality and was controlled directly by Americans.” He said the convicted student was part of the “infiltration project” that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been warning about for some time. Iranian journalists including Ehsan Mazandarani and Isa Saharkhiz have also been accused of being a part of this Western-led conspiracy, as have jailed dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi. Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese with permanent US residency, is also behind bars in Iran accused of being a spy for the US.
It was left to Mizan to create the by now routine conspiracy theories, claiming Wang was involved in a “spider web” of connections that connected him to the “political, security and intelligence organizations of the US and the UK.”
At the center of these accusations lies the Sharmin and Bijan Mossvar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton. Xiyue Wang is accused of “digitally recording 4500 pages of the country’s documents” and sending it to the Center, “the research team at the State Department,” The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the British Institute of Persian Studies.
“The reasons given for the charges are absurd,” Wang’s former Harvard classmate told IranWire. “A database of scans from the archive, some previous funding from the State Department, and a connection to the Kennedy School of Government — this isn’t a sinister pattern, it’s a description of a normal history graduate student.”
Academics Caught up in Political Battles
Analysts say the move is probably part of the efforts by the judiciary, which is controlled by Iranian ultra-conservatives, to put pressure on the government of President Hassan Rouhani, who was re-elected in May.
Once again, it would appear that an innocent student has become a random victim to the vicious powerplay of Iranian politics.
“The sad irony of all this is that he loved the Islamic world,” Wang’s friend from Princeton says, “and that love is what put him in a position [where] he is being hurt to make what is most probably a political point.”
It is not uncommon for scholars visiting Iran to get caught up in politics, and to face arrest and imprisonment.
Homa Hoodfar, an Iranian-Canadian professor of anthropology at Montreal’s Concordia University, was arrested in March 2016 and spent 112 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps subjected her to psychological torture. However, this treatment is less common for scholars who are not of Iranian descent.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC have denied that Wang is a Chinese citizen. This, despite the fact that Iranian authorities declared him to be of “double nationality.”
The Chinese embassy’s spokesperson told told the Tab that Mr Wang lost his Chinese citizenship automatically upon receiving citizenship from another country.
“As Wang is an American citizen, the United States will be handling this matter. We have little room for involvement,” the spokesperson added.
Read more about jailed dual nationals and the "infiltration network" arrests in Iran: