XiYue Wang, a naturalized American citizen originally from Beijing and former Ph.D. student at Princeton University now serving as a congressional staffer, spoke to assembled dinner guests (video) at the Middle East Forum's Transformations 2023 conference about his unjust three-and-a-half-year imprisonment by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The following is a summation of his remarks:
Wang immigrated to the U.S. when he was twenty and became a citizen eight years later. He lived an idyllic life for an immigrant, studying South Asia during his undergraduate years at the University of Washington and Central Asia at Harvard for his MA. He worked for the Red Cross in Afghanistan, married, and had a child.
While pursuing his Ph.D. in history at Princeton, his life took a dramatic turn for the worse. In 2016, in the aftermath of the "Iran deal," Wang was encouraged by Princeton to travel to Iran to do archival research on the obscure topic of nineteenth-century Turkic nomads, which he deemed "not a particularly politically charged topic." Yet, after only a few weeks of research, he was arrested as a spy, a categorically false charge, and taken to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran.
Wang insisted that he was arrested solely because he is an American citizen, explaining that his captors told him, "If you were Chinese, this would not have happened." The Iranian regime sought to hold him hostage as leverage in their relations with the U.S. In prison, he suffered long stints in solitary confinement and was used frequently as a propaganda tool. He spent just under ten months in a windowless cell and was allowed to see sunlight for twenty minutes twice weekly.
Wang said he felt "naïve" for his earlier belief that Iran truly wanted peace with the U.S. He blames academe and the media for nurturing this false impression, stressing that "things I assumed that the Iranian regime would appreciate, like, say, pursuing business and cultural ties with other countries, were used to put people in jail. In fact, me saying things like, I believe President Obama should visit Iran, was used against me in an Iranian court as 'evidence' that I was really in Iran to pursue regime change."
Wang was shocked that when he returned to the U.S. as a result of a 2019 prisoner swap orchestrated by former U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, many at Princeton blamed his ordeal on the Trump Administration, rather than Iran, even though he was imprisoned before Trump was elected. He was shocked that a real-world rebuke of their soft-on-Iran academic theories failed to convince Princeton's professors to reconsider their views of the Islamic Republic. Wang said Princeton "hasn't so much as voluntarily given me an extension on time to complete my Ph.D." and that the university is home to both a former Iranian ambassador and an Iranian cleric, "neither of which did anything to help me during my ordeal."
Since his release, Wang has made it his mission to make the Iranian regime's life difficult.
Wang praised the Middle East Forum's work on Iran, especially its efforts to counter domestic Iranian influences such as Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, a former Iranian Ambassador to the UN who now teaches at Oberlin College and remains loyal to the regime. MEF's work was cited by Congress in ongoing oversight efforts that in which Wang has participated. He condemned the inadequate vetting procedures that allowed Mahdi Ansari, a member of a terror-designated Iranian militia, to study here, and praised the Forum's role in uncovering several other Iranian influence operations.
Yet, the big picture is that much of the U.S.'s Iran policy is based on two fallacies: (1) "The belief that we can soften the regime's stance toward us by playing soft with them," and (2) the conviction that the conflict is America's fault. In fact, the hostility stems from the Iranian regime's worldview that America is the "Great Satan." Wang chastised the Biden administration for being far too soft on Iran and believes the recent China-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a symptom of America's lack of dedication to the region, which he believes must be reversed.
Wang closed his remarks by observing that while "Princeton never asked me to share my experiences or views on Iran after leaving prison, nor have many others in the academy," the Middle East Forum did, for which he was grateful.
Clifford Smith is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.