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Xiyue Wang used as "pawn" by Iran in negotiations with United States

Over the course of this month, the Iranian government has aired videos of two foreign prisoners—Xiyue Wang GS, sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage while conducting research, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British charity worker sentenced to five years for endangering national security—in an effort to pressure the U.S. and Great Britain to withhold sanctions and pay back debt, respectively.

Wang, an American fourth-year graduate student and researcher at the University working on a doctorate in history, was arrested in Tehran last summer, making him the only detainee of five Americans to not hold dual American-Iranian citizenship. In a video published on Saturday, a state television station aired a video suggesting Wang was using his doctoral research in order to spy on Iran with the support of the U.S. government, the University, and Harvard, where Wang had studied. The University denies these allegations, explaining that scholars decide for themselves where to conduct research.


On December 5th, University President Christopher Eisgruber ‘83 sent a letter to President Trump urging him “to take any feasible additional steps to secure Mr. Wang’s release,” noting that Wang is in poor health—suffering from arthritis in his knees, according to his wife, Hua Qu—and that his family misses him. “He is a legitimate scholar who was unjustly jailed while pursuing historical research,” Eisgruber wrote.

Wang appeared to be writing a confession in the video, which also feature footage of University students and the CIA seal displayed to the sound of “ominous music,” according to The Washington Post.

Wang was studying Eurasian languages and regional governance practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and travelled to Iran to study Farsi and examine historical documents, according to a University press realease.

“It was his passion for this field of study that drew him to Iran,”  Qu wrote in a statement, “and nothing else.”

In the Iranian video, Wang appears in an interview, saying: “the more knowledge that the United States possess about Iran the better for its policy towards Iran.”

“The objective was collection of documents that U.S. intelligence organizations had their eyes on from the Iranian foreign ministry as well as the library and archive of the parliament,” a reporter said in the video.


The video was released at a crucial time for diplomatic relations. Congress has until Dec. 12th to decide whether to attach more sanctions and conditions in order to restrict nuclear activity. President Trump has called the Iran deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Wang is being used as “a political pawn” in order to influence Congress’ upcoming decision regarding sanctions, according to Qu.

In the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British charity worker, Iran may be trying to pressure Britain to pay back $530 million in outstanding debt originating from undelivered weapons and vehicles before the 1979 revolution. Now, Britain is set to transfer the 400 million pounds sterling owed, although Prime Minister Theresa May denies that the transfer is ransom payment. The payment recalls a similar situation last year in which the U.S. made a $400 million payment to settle debt after the release of five American citizens.

Until he is released, Wang has requested the University send him books, according to Qu.

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“He still very interested in reading and to spend his days in a meaningful way,” she told The New York Times, noting that it is difficult to get books to him through the prison and that she is yet to be successful.

In a statement released on November 27th, the University wrote that Wang had explained his research plan to the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., which assisted him in gaining access to Iran’s National Archives. He was not warned about going to Iran, according to Qu.

The University is “doing everything it can, day after day, to bring him home to his wife and young son, and to enable him to resume his scholarly work,” reads the statement.