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A Most Unwanted Man

Xiyue Wang’s imprisonment in Iran and later activism have been awkward for regime-aligned Princeton officials eager to move on from their former student

Peter Theroux
January 13, 2022
Courtesy Hua Qu
Courtesy Hua Qu
Courtesy Hua Qu
Courtesy Hua Qu

Xiyue Wang concedes that he was a wishful thinker as he set off for Tehran in the early spring of 2016. At the time he was a 36-year-old Chinese American doctoral student in Princeton’s history department, conducting research on the late Qajar and early Pahlavi governance of the Turkmens on the Russo-Iranian frontier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “I was fucking stupid,” he would later tell The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood. “If I could go back, I would slap myself.”

In December of 2019, Wang was freed after 40 months of living in solitary confinement in section 209 of Evin Prison, a dungeon controlled by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and normally reserved for regime critics, alleged Sunni fundamentalists, Christian converts, and former government officials embroiled in financial crimes and political disputes.

Princeton had directed Wang to travel to Iran on a language study visa, and among his first orders of business was to make contact with the student affairs section at the Foreign Ministry to get permission to do research separate from language study, and they consented. But by May 2016, he had trouble accessing his Princeton emails. He was blocked from his own account due to abnormal activity, and Princeton’s Office of Information Technology informed him that it seemed the Iranian cyber police had hacked his account. His cellphone performance also deteriorated, and his phone number changed without any action on his part. Wang also felt that he was being closely surveilled; at first he assumed this was standard practice for foreigners but later came to see it as personal. Princeton took his mounting worries in stride, advising him to remain in country and pursue his studies, and his thesis adviser, the legendary Sovietologist Stephen Kotkin, encouraged him to persevere.

But Wang’s fortunes declined sharply in July, when the National Archives in Tehran started denying him access it had previously allowed. When Wang phoned his adviser, Kotkin reportedly advised him not to communicate by email anymore and suggested they could talk face-to-face once Wang returned to the United States. Wang made plans to fly home, but on July 20, the Ministry of Intelligence confiscated his passport and laptop. On the 26th, he was interrogated and threatened with arrest. Alarmed by the security services’ interest in their tenant, Wang’s landlords made plans to evict him.

Wang’s increasingly frantic communications with Princeton, his wife, and the Swiss Embassy in Tehran ended on Aug. 7, when he was picked up by Iranian officials who said they were taking him to the airport for his flight home, but who drove him instead to Evin. He was eventually charged with espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Back at Princeton, there would eventually be candlelight vigils and social media support, but not until the one-year anniversary of his captivity. The university spent that first year avoiding making waves on his behalf. Not that it lacked leverage: Its faculty, inside and outside its Iran Studies Center, boasted big names with ties to Tehran, including the former regime official Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a senior nuclear negotiator who served as Iran’s ambassador to Germany during the September 1992 massacre of Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant. (A German court found the Iranian government culpable up to the highest levels; Mousavian called the allegations “a joke” and said that Iran would never violate human rights.) I asked Mousavian if he was ever asked by anyone at Princeton to intervene with his colleagues in Tehran on Wang’s behalf. He demurred, and referred me to Princeton’s media shop, which did not respond.

The university had further leverage in Mona Rahmani, then a researcher on the staff of the Iran Studies Center. While Mousavian appeared to serve during the Obama years as an unofficial Iranian ambassador to the United States, with the White House seeking his advice in the run-up to the JCPOA, Mona is the daughter of Mostafa Rahmani, the former head of the Iranian Interests Section in Washington (the country’s de facto consular operation in the U.S., housed inside the Pakistani Embassy) and a direct line to the regime. This particular hotline was never used, and Mona left Princeton in 2017 after three years in the Iran Center.

Princeton advised Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, not to make waves either; it was not until July 2017 that the news of Wang’s captivity broke, and it was the Iranians who broke it—followed a few days later by their demand for the release of Iranian prisoners in the United States. A year after that, Princeton released a statement on the matter that included a mix of indignant denials, deflections, and apparent victim-blaming, but which conspicuously didn’t include a demand for Wang’s release:

The recent Iranian announcement says that he was ‘sent’ by Princeton to ‘infiltrate’ Iran and that he had connections to intelligence agencies. These charges are completely false. Princeton does not determine where students will conduct their research; like all of our scholars, Mr. Wang made his own judgments about what research he needed to do and where he needed to do it for his dissertation.

I was an intelligence analyst chasing state sponsors of terror and their proxies when Wang’s story made the news. I contacted him following his release and was won over by his warm and energetic manner, to say nothing of his bluntness and fury at his captors, which is still on display on his Twitter feed. We eventually became friends and spoke often of his experiences. Our conversations about these matters stopped last year when he filed a lawsuit with the university. In order to recount his story without his participation, I conducted extensive research and corroborating interviews with almost two dozen well-informed but often sensitive sources, ranging from public officials and academics to retired diplomats and ex-hostages, yielding few who were willing to be named.

In Evin, Wang was placed in solitary confinement in a tiny cell lit day and night, with three malodorous acrylic blankets; he slept between two, rolling up the third as a pillow. Daytime was filled with panicked anxiety, he later told interviewers, and the interrogations were always in the evening, starting around 6 p.m. and running until 10 or 11. The initial interrogations probed him on his activities and his views on U.S. foreign policy. They did not involve beatings or threats that he would never see his family again, which featured in his later interrogations, but these early ones still left him too rattled to sleep, a condition worsened by the constant illumination in his cell. At one point he asked a prison flunky why the interrogations had to be at night. The answer was that the interrogators wanted overtime pay. After 18 days, Wang—who by then had already lost 20 pounds—was allowed to call his wife.

Hua, a lawyer, had to balance work with an increasingly anxious toddler, and an endless array of contacts in Princeton and Washington to try and find a solution to her husband’s open-ended nightmare. Princeton discouraged her from hiring a lawyer; when she did, and the university’s lawyers met with him, they counseled that “these things tend to work themselves out.” Armed with faith in the strength and rectitude of American institutions, and with sporadic 10-minute phone calls from Evin, the couple tried to buck each other up.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, Wang was being moved in and out of solitary confinement, back and forth between section 209 and prison 4, which housed inmates from the general population, and prison 7, ward 12, reserved for security detainees. Solitary, a universally acknowledged form of torture, was the worst. It has been observed that even in prisons full of murderers and rapists, the cruelest punishment is being deprived of the company of other human beings. The utter silence, broken only by occasional shouting from guards or weeping from prisoners, is maddening, and panic attacks are common. In that bizarre world, prisoners often look forward to interrogations more than meals. Even hostile questioning is a form of human interaction, whereas a state of constant fear and panic is an absolute appetite killer.

According to Hua’s public statement at a candlelight vigil in 2017, more than a year into Wang’s disappearance, their young son started watching the sky and would call a passing airplane to his mother’s attention. “Daddy must be on the plane, on his way home,” he would say hopefully. A devastated Hua recounted this over the phone to her devastated husband, whose frustration and rage were mounting.

“She is a warm, charismatic, lovely person,” Laura Dean says of Hua. Dean published a profile of the embattled Hua in The New Yorker in June 2019. “At the time Xiyue was taken, Hua hadn’t been in the U.S. very long, and suddenly she had all this responsibility, raising her son and dealing with all these international actors. She had to get savvy very quickly.”

While Iranian jailers were torturing Wang and hundreds of others at Evin, the government was projecting an image of wounded innocence to the world, the seeker of a peaceful nuclear energy program and the victim of unfair sanctions. But the beatings and abuse Wang received had a specific objective: to extract a confession of espionage and a propaganda video that would raise his price as a hostage, worthy of exchanging for the release of Iranian assets or prisoners. “They had a road map from day one, or even before day one,” Wang told the Hudson Institute at an event in October 2021.

“When I first saw Xiyue in Evin, he was completely terrorized,” I was told by a former State Department contractor who befriended Wang in prison 7, ward 12, where they spent a year and a half together. “He was scared of everybody. But he’s a good, strong man. He adapts and adjusts quickly to everything.”

One of the special difficulties they shared in Evin was that they were both foreigners. According to the former contractor, Iranian inmates with dual citizenship—a favorite regime target for hostage-taking—can keep certain connections alive in prison; they understand the culture, they get family visits, and they know how to try and avoid offending their captors. Whereas “we didn’t know what the hell was going on.” But at times, even among the foreign inmates, Wang was completely alone.

“In prison, Xiyue’s pain came equally from inside and outside. He was interrogated and abused, and I heard they mistreated him,” according to the former contractor. “But he was so angry at his employer. He did not think Princeton was treating his wife right. He was suffering more from the outside than from the inside. I saw that daily. He’d speak and shout about it. He felt as much injustice from outside as he felt from [Islamic Revolutionary Court judge Abolqasem] Salavati.”

Forty months after his arrest, Wang was released into the custody of the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, then flown home via Zurich and Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. Several people familiar with Wang’s arrival in Zurich after his captivity marveled at his resilience. The FBI team charged with debriefing him and documenting his account of his term in Evin and others present remarked on his composure, describing him as “tough” and “cleaner” than most ex-hostages who had survived lesser ordeals. He surprised them with his eagerness to go beyond his prison experience to discuss Iranian policy (and even European history) and pressed them on why sanctions against Tehran were not tougher. In principle, he was free to resume his family life and doctoral studies. His troubles, however, were far from over.

Princeton’s Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies (no relation to Mona) might have been expected to make a celebrity out of the returning doctoral student who had just completed a nearly four-year immersion program, housed with Iran’s brightest (if also unluckiest) teachers, journalists, and intellectuals. After all, after decades of broken relations between the United States and Iran (and Iran’s hostage-taking of visiting journalists and scholars), the availability of firsthand Iran expertise has been greatly reduced in the U.S., as evidenced by the weakness of most Iranian studies programs on U.S. campuses. Most of the public funding for these programs is tied to national security studies and Persian-language training; overall, Iranian area studies is not a strong field in American universities. Princeton helped fund its center with money from an old Pahlavi Fund grant and a more recent $10 million donation from the wealthy, art-collecting Mossavar-Rahmanis.

Mrs. Mossavar-Rahmani, at least, is into the art. Bijan is the executive chairman and CEO of the energy firm RAK Petroleum PCL, based, as its name suggests, in the UAE emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. RAK’s board also includes Amir Handjani, a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute, “Washington’s weirdest think tank” co-founded by Trita Parsi, a well known apologist for the Iranian regime who previously headed the National Iranian American Council.

Princeton was quick to welcome Wang back after his release, but the welcome appeared somewhat perfunctory. Kotkin and Princeton reportedly jibbed at providing any special accommodations for Wang. They expected him to return to teaching duties in line with the expectations of any third-year Ph.D. student and pressed him to pursue an academic program amid the pandemic, as if Wang’s 40-month ordeal in prison was a nonfactor.

Wang’s Twitter account was soon ablaze with bold commentary on U.S.-Iran policy, and might have sparked lively debates with his Princeton colleagues and other worthy opponents of his views. But Mousavian led the way by simply blocking him. When Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University claimed on Twitter that the Trump administration’s sanctions were turning ordinary Iranians against the United States, Wang challenged him to provide evidence, pointing out that the spontaneous demonstrations then taking place in Iran were anti-regime, not anti-American. Nasr then blocked him, too.

And then there was Feb. 11, 2020, the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was at Princeton for a panel discussion sponsored by the Iran Center, prior to which he had a friendly lunch with Wang, who was nonplussed when Crocker suggested they move along to the panel; Wang had heard nothing about it. When the two men turned up at the venue, there was Parsi and fellow regime apologist Barbara Slavin. According to some of those present, Wang laid into the panel during the Q&A segment so harshly that he later apologized to Crocker, who had brought him as his guest. Crocker later told me that he remembers Wang having raised “excellent” points, but the quality of his comments wasn’t the issue. What Wang discovered was that the Iran Studies Center at his own university had quietly removed him from their mailing list.

The cold shoulder Wang received from several Princeton colleagues opened the university to suspicions about prioritizing an apparent loyalty to featherbedded pro-Iran faculty and staff over the humane treatment of one of their own students. Hostages held for a fraction of Wang’s time in captivity are typically provided some sort of institutional hand-holding to soften their landing, if not treated as heroes and given the opportunity to share their experiences. The torture, separation, and despair suffered by the Wang family for years was instead compounded by professional and economic uncertainty upon his return. Princeton expressed profound concern for Wang and his family, but otherwise seemed intent on moving on without them.

Hostages held for a fraction of Wang’s time in captivity are typically provided some sort of institutional hand-holding to soften their landing, if not treated as heroes and given the opportunity to share their experiences.

For the time being, Wang has given up on Princeton. A few months before his release, the Iran Center brought in Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, another dependably pro-Iran academic, to serve as director. Ghamari-Tabrizi is known for denouncing U.S. sanctions on Iran as war by other means and for defending what he believes is the rationality of the regime’s policies. For his part, Mousavian was recently featured in a documentary in which he gloated over Iranian death threats aimed at former U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, which left his wife “shaking.”

Iranian studies in the U.S. is evidently a world in which the academic stakes are low but the political stakes are high; the side that deploys terror and torture has a cakewalk over the side that’s eager to roll over. In the Mercer County, New Jersey, courts, where the Iranian government and its supporters abroad enjoy no such leverage, Wang and his wife have filed a lawsuit against Princeton and its trustees for “severe personal injuries and other irreparable harm which the Plaintiffs have suffered as a result of the Defendants’ reckless, willful, wanton, and grossly negligent acts.”

Apart from academia and the courts, there is also the media world, in which Wang remains a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime and its supporters. His writing, speaking engagements, and interviews have focused on rubbishing Iran’s longstanding “ransom-for-hostages policy,” exposing skeezy ties between the regime and U.S. universities, and correcting attempts to paint the partial release of hostages during the Obama administration as a triumph of diplomacy, rather than the result of a multi-billion-dollar ransom payment to Tehran. On Twitter, Wang responds like a Belgian Malinois to any scent of Iranian propaganda.

His second act in his new life was a recent move to Capitol Hill as national security adviser to Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. “Wang is one of the most important voices on Iran in the world, as an Ivy League scholar, hostage, and now policymaker,” I was told by a former senior State Department official. “We need him to expose the lies of the regime and get the right policy on Iran to restore deterrence.”

And so the doctoral student who believed in engagement when he moved to Iran in 2016 but who ended up with a far different education from the one he was expecting has returned—not to the campus, but to the halls of political power.

Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.