Who is Xiyue Wang, the American freed by Iran after 3 years?

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In this undated photo made available by the family of Xiyue Wang, via Princeton University, Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American Princeton graduate student pose for a photo with his wife Hua Qu and their son in an unknown location. (Princeton University via AP)

At a time of high tensions with the West, and especially the United States, the regime in Tehran on Saturday (December 7) freed an American graduate student after keeping him in prison in Iran for more than three years.

Iran had accused the American student, Xiyue Wang, of being a spy. He was freed in exchange for an Iranian scientist, Masoud Soleimani, whom the United States had arrested in Chicago in 2018, and subsequently found guilty of violating US trade sanctions against Iran.

Soleimani was due to be released next month in any case under a plea agreement — to that extent, the release of Xiyue Wang was a good deal, American media outlets were reporting on Saturday, quoting unnamed administration officials.

Xiyue Wang, 38, was flown out from Tehran to Zurich in a Swiss government aircraft.

In this photo released on twitter account of Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif , Zarif, left, shakes hand with Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani prior to leaving Zurich, Switzerland for Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (Javad Zarif twitter account via AP)

He was a fourth-year graduate student at Princeton University who was arrested when he was conducting research in Iran in August 2016.

He was accused of espionage, and was locked up for 10 years in Tehran’s Evin prison. The US has denied that he was a spy.

Xiyue Wang, who was born in Beijing in 1980, went to the US in 2001, and has been a naturalised US citizen since 2009. He is married and the couple have a son.

He was a student of late-19th- and early-20th-century history of Eurasia, and was in Iran “solely for the purpose of studying Farsi and doing scholarly research in connection with his Ph.D. dissertation”, according to the Princeton University website.

According to the university, “his field is late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history” and his dissertation “will study regional governance practices across multiple countries during that time period”.

In Iran, Xiyue Wang wanted to study “decades-old archival materials that pertained to the administrative and cultural history of the Qajar dynasty, which ruled from 1785-1925”, Princeton said.

“Before traveling to Iran he sent letters explaining his research plan to the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C. (which issued his visa) and to the libraries in Iran that he planned to visit.

“He was very transparent about what he wanted to study and why, and about his desire to access documents housed at Iranian libraries and archives.

“He was not involved in any political activities or social activism; he was simply a scholar trying to gain access to materials he needed for his dissertation,” according to the Princeton website.

The Iranian government, however, alleged that Xiyue Wang had links with US intelligence services, and had been “sent” to that country by Princeton for purposes of espionage.

In 2018, a UN human rights panel rejected the Iranian action as “arbitrary” and with “no legal basis”, and demanded the scholar’s immediate release.