Monday, July 17, 2017

Chinese American accused of spying on Iran, sentenced to 10 years in prison

Xiyue Wang

AN IRANIAN COURT has sentenced a Chinese/American scholar to 10 years behind bars after accusing him of espionage.

Xiyue Wang, 37, under the auspices of Princeton University, was in Iran doing research on ancient Persian history and culture.

UPDATE: The events and announcements of Tuesday, (July 18) were added.
On Tuesday (July 18), the detention of Wang and other U.S. citizens was among Iran's "malign activities" that justify continuing the economic sanctions initiated by President Barack Obama and which Donald Trump announced would continue. 

Wang's "field is late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history," said Princeton in a press release Sunday (July 17). He was arrested in Iran last summer, while there doing scholarly research on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty in connection with his Ph.D. dissertation. Since his arrest, the University has worked with Mr. Wang’s family, the U.S. government, private counsel and others to facilitate his release."

Fars, a semiofficial Iranian news agency, quoted Mizan Online, a news agency affiliated with Iran’s judiciary, as saying Wang pursued espionage “through the cover of being a researcher.” 

Mizan, Fars said, reported that Wang was “gathering secret and top secret [intelligence]” for the U.S. State Department, Harvard Kennedy School, and the British Institute of Persian Studies. He was accused, the Fars report said, of “infiltrating Iran’s national archive and building a 4,500-page digital archive” for “the world’s biggest anti-Iran spying organization.”

Stephen Kotkin, Wang’s adviser at Princeton, told the Washington Post that Wang was a gifted scholar who was impressed with Persian culture.

“Xiyue Wang is a remarkable, linguistically gifted graduate student studying late 19th- and early 20th-century governance in predominantly Muslim regions — Qajar Iran, Afghanistan, imperial Russian Turkestan,” he said. “He is innocent of all the charges. In Tehran, Wang collected documents that were 100 years old. He has told me often of his exhilaration at the exquisiteness and depth of Persian civilization.”

According to CNN, Wang was raised in China and earned a bachelor's degree in South Asian studies from the University of Washington. 

His Facebook page lists Beijing as his hometown, Wang is proficient in Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, and Hindi. 

For a time, he worked as a translator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he helped Afghans traumatized by violence and death from the American-led war against the Taliban, according to the NY Times.

He also studied Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard University, according to a biography of Wang from Princeton in Asia program, where he did a fellowship from 2008 to 2009.

"What he does know is that his dream is to walk the ancient Silk Road from Xi'an to Rome one day,” the biography read. 

Anna Lind-Guzik, a graduate student in Russian history at Princeton, wrote on her Twitter account: “This is nuts! Xiyue Wang is a friend. We did all our coursework together. He’s a kind family man, great scholar & furthest thing from a spy.”

The U.S. State Department called for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens in jail in Iran.

“The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related changes,” a press statement said. “The safety and security of US citizens remains a top priority. All U.S. citizens, especially dual nationals considering travel to Iran, should carefully read our latest travel warning.”‎

At least three other Americans are thought to be imprisoned in Iran although the number could be higher.

The three Americans hold dual U.S.-Iranian citizenships: Siamak Namazi was detained in October 2015; his 80-year old father Baquer Namazi, former UNICEF employee, was detained four months later. They were sentenced in October 2016 to 10 years in prison. 

Reza “Robin” Shahini, a San Diego resident who was arrested in July 2016 while visiting family in Iran, was sentenced in October to 18 years in prison for spying. He was freed this year pending an appeal. 

In addition, the fate of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 is still unknown.

Wang's conviction and sentencing comes at a sensitive time amid tensions between the the U.S. and Iran as Donald Trump and his GOP-dominated Congress have taken increasingly harsh positions against Iran.

During his election campaign, Trump has promised to tear up the 2015 deal struck between Iran and world powers, including the United States, that lifted some sanctions in return for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.

Relations between the U.S. and Iran have “hit rock bottom,” according to Sanam Vakil, a professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Wang's arrest may just be another bargaining chip in the high-stakes talks between tough-talking Trump and conservative hardliners in Iran.

The Trump administration on Tuesday announced new sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorists, citing the failure of the Iran nuclear deal to contribute to the stability of the Middle East.

The move came a day after the administration certified to Congress that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal but would face consequences for breaching its “spirit."

Trump, who vowed as a presidential candidate to dismantle the agreement, has given himself more time to determine whether to let it stand.

"Iran’s other malign activities are serving to undercut whatever 'positive contributions' to regional and international peace and security were intended to emerge from the (agreement)," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The statement went on to mention the detention of Wang along with other U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related charges, and that the U.S. calls on Iran to release them.

“Iran should immediately release all of these U.S. citizens on humanitarian grounds,” Nauert said.

“Part of the reason why they’re doing this is because they understand that arresting the U.S. citizens and Westerners, particularly on ridiculous charges like this, has a deterring effect against companies that have been thinking about investing in the Iranian economy,” said Trita Parsi, the author of a new book on US-Iran relations, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy

According to Parsi, Iran’s hardliners oppose foreign economic investment because they fear it could lead to instability and the ultimate downfall of the regime.