The Princeton Historian Mugged by RealityHistorians in the News
tags: Iran, human rights
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.
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.
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