Princeton grad student believed harmony with Iran was possible, but 40 months as a hostage changed his mind

Princeton grad student believed harmony with Iran was possible, but 40 months as a hostage changed his mind

The Atlantic published a story today about a Princeton grad student named Xiyue Wang. Wang was born in China and moved to the U.S. when he was 20. He became a naturalized citizen and did graduate work at Harvard. After a year working for the Red Cross in Afghanistan he was admitted to a PhD program at Princeton in 2013. Then in 2015 Iran granted him a Visa to do historical research and study Persian in Tehran. At first everything seemed to be going very well but four months after he arrived he was put in prison. He would remain a hostage of the Iranian regime for the next 40 months. But in that time he says he came to see Iran for what it really is.

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.

President Trump eventually made a deal to exchange Wang for an Iranian scientist. In December of 2019 he was finally released. But when he returned, he found that the reception at Princeton wasn’t very warm.

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.”

Summing up the change in his view of Iran, Wang told author Graeme Wood, “I was f**king stupid. Unbelievably stupid. If I could go back, I would slap myself.” Instead he spends every day on Twitter commenting about Iranian policy. Here are a few recent examples:

Take it from a man who knows first hand what the Iranian regime is really like.

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