Iran Releases American Student in Prisoner Swap

December 7, 2019
Updated

On December 7, the United States and Iran conducted a rare prisoner swap. An American graduate student, Xiyue Wang, was released in Switzerland in exchange for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian national held in an Atlanta prison for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions. 

President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked the Swiss for their help in arranging the trade. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, the Swiss represent U.S. interests in Tehran. The State Department posted a photograph of Wang with U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook at the airport in Switzerland.

 

Wang is a Chinese-born naturalized American citizen. He had traveled to Iran to conduct research for his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty. He was arrested in August 2016. In 2017, an Iranian court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying. He did not see his wife or son for more than three years. “Our family is complete once again. Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, said in a statement. Wang’s lawyer thanked President Trump in a tweet.

 

Soleimani, a stem cell researcher and visiting scholar at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, was arrested in October 2018 on charges that he had violated U.S. sanctions against the transport of biological material. The FBI accused Soleimani of trying to export vials of growth hormone, for medical research, to Iran in September 2016 through the help of a former student. Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted pictures of himself with Soleimani on their way home to Iran. 

 

The swap was the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes work. The Wang family’s lawyer, Jason Poblete, enlisted the help of former Kansas congressman Jim Slattery. Slattery had traveled to Iran before and engaged with Iranians through an interfaith dialogue. He also knew Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and U.N. ambassador, Majid Takht-Ravanchi. Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson told The New Yorker that he invested 20 months in negotiating Wang’s release. 

In a statement, Trump pledged to “continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas.” He later told reporters that the swap might be “a precursor as to what can be done.” The following are reactions to the exchange and profiles of Wang and Soleimani.

 

U.S. Government Responses 

 

President Donald Trump

“We’re very happy to have our hostage back.  The whole Princeton University community is very thrilled.  And there was a one-on-one hostage swap.  Actually, I think it was a great thing for Iran.  I think it was great to show that we can do something.  It might have been a precursor as to what can be done. 

But we have our hostage back.  We’ve been trying to get him back.  He was taken during the Obama administration.  We got him back during the Trump administration, so we’re very happy about that.” 

—Dec. 7, 2019, in remarks to the press 

 

"After more than three years of being held prisoner in Iran, Xiyue Wang is returning to the United States.  A Princeton University graduate student, Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016.  We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.  The highest priority of the United States is the safety and well-being of its citizens.  Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my Administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas."

—Dec. 7, 2019, in a press statement

 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

“Another American is coming home. Xiyue Wang, who has been held on false charges in Iran for over three years, has now been released and is on his way back to the United States. Mr. Wang will soon be reunited with his wife and son, who have missed him dearly. The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones.

“We thank the Swiss government for facilitating the return of Mr. Wang, and are pleased that Tehran has been constructive in this matter. We continue to call for the release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran.”

—Dec. 7, 2019, in a press statement

 

Press Call by a Senior Administration Official

Dec. 7, 2019 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It was a late night, early morning this morning, as we were tracking the events regarding Xiyue Wang and his return to the United States.  I can tell you that Xiyue is in route and may have landed already in Germany, where he'll undergo some medical evaluations to ensure his health.  But I have been told both by Xiyue, with whom I spoke last night -- or early this morning -- and those who were with him, that he appears to be in good health, and I can tell you he seems to be in very, very good humor and in good spirits.  And so he'll take a brief break in Germany, and then we expect him to return home soon. 

As you know, he was held prisoner in Iran, unjustly and wrongly, for the past three years.  Xiyue was a Princeton University student who had gone to Iran to study, and to study Persian literature.  He's been held there under the pretense of an espionage charge since August 2016.  He was not a spy, he was not involved in espionage, and was wrongfully detained from the start. 

I want to thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang's release.  The Swiss, including their Ambassador on the ground, Markus Leitner, and other officials in the Swiss government in Bern, have worked tirelessly to obtain the release of Mr. Wang and of other Americans wrongly held in Switzerland for many, many years -- or wrongfully held in Iran for many, many years.   

In my prior work as a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, I worked closely with the Swiss and we're grateful for their efforts, both as our protecting power, providing consular services to Americans in Tehran, and for their efforts here. 

The President remains committed to talks with Iran without preconditions, and we'll continue to work very hard to bring home all of our American citizens wrongfully held captive overseas, including the Americans, as they continue to be held wrongfully in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Q  As I understand it, these negotiations started about three weeks ago.  Can you tell us at all about whether the U.S. initiated them, whether Iran initiated them?  And do they represent any kind of instigator for more negotiations with Iran on broader topics, whether other prisoners or larger issues?   

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We've been attempting to have a consular dialogue with Iran for some time.  It goes back even to before the time that I was the [redacted], back into early 2018, late 2017.  So we've been seeking a consular dialogue so that we could raise the issues of -- the issue of the wrongfully held Americans in Iran for some time. 

As far as how this came about, the Swiss took a leading role in organizing these negotiations.  I think these negotiations on the specific release of Xiayue Wang have been ongoing intensely for the past three to four weeks, but have been going on a bit longer than that.  And, you know, we want to thank the Swiss for their efforts on that front. 

I'm hopeful that the release of Mr. Wang is a sign that the Iranians are realizing that their practice of hostage-taking diplomacy really should come to an end if Iran wants to rejoin the international community.  That's one of the malign activities that really needs to end on the part of the Iranians.  And so we're hopeful that this indicates some, and could lead to some, momentum in obtaining the release of other Americans who are wrongfully held in Iran. 

With respect to further talks, the United States had a maximum pressure campaign on Iran after withdrawing from the JCPOA, which was a terribly flawed agreement.  The maximum pressure campaign that President Trump has instituted is working and is highly effective, where the Iranians are feeling the pressure of the maximum sanctions campaign.   

President Trump has made it very clear that he's willing to meet with the Iranians, without preconditions, to talk about important issues between our countries, including the total end of Iran's nuclear program, certainly the return of American hostages, ending the long-range ballistic missile program in Iran, and ending Iran's malign activities in the region, which is destabilizing countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen. 

And it's interesting, not only are there massive protests in Iran, there are massive protests in Iraq and Lebanon from people that are no longer interested in the way that Iran is attempting to run their governments through proxies. 

So, look, we're hopeful that the release of Mr. Wang is a sign that the Iranians may be willing to come to the table to discuss all these issues. 

Q   Foreign Minister Zarif first brought up the idea of a swap in April, repeatedly in public and in private sessions. He talked again in September at the U.N. about it, and first mentioned Soleimani.  Do you credit the Iranians with trying to jumpstart this process? 

And, secondly, on Soleimani, he was scheduled to have an appearance in court this week.  Can you tell us how the legal end of his status has been resolved?  Was there some kind of behind-the-scenes plea, and then he was given time served and released?  Or was this really a swap and the judicial process has been dropped? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  First, with respect to Mr. Zarif's comments, as you know, I've been seeking to open a consular dialogue with Foreign Minister Zarif for quite some time. We never believed that those public comments of Mr. Zarif were very serious.   

Our consistent posture had been that rather than trying to negotiate, for propaganda points, in CFR lectures or interviews with friendly journalists -- and Mr. Zarif seems to have lots of friends in Boston and New York -- that the proper way to deal with these sorts of negotiations was through established diplomatic channels, either in talks directly with the United States or going through our protecting power, the Swiss. 

And when the Iranians became serious and were willing to handle these conversations in a formal, diplomatic process, we were able to make some progress.  I wouldn’t give Foreign Minister Zarif's comments to the press much currency with respect to this. 

We do appreciate the fact that we were able to work through proper diplomatic channels -- in this case, the Swiss -- to effectuate the release of Mr. Wang.  And so we do appreciate the fact that we were able to have those conversations through the Swiss, with Iran, and then it led to the release of Mr. Wang. 

With respect to Mr. Soleimani, the United States has dropped charges against Massoud Soleimani.  He's an Iranian doctor who was charged with conspiring and attempting to export materials to Iran without a license, in violation of U.S. sanctions.  And he was scheduled to be in court this week.  For anything further on Mr. Soleimani's case, we would refer you to the DOJ for comment. 

Q    We've seen, especially in your time helping the President with the release of prisoners or hostages abroad, a desire to bring them to the White House and have that moment in the Oval Office.  Do you anticipate that that will happen at some point when Mr. Wang is well enough, able enough?  And what kind of timing might that include? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don't know how that will happen.  Our biggest concern is for the health and welfare and wellbeing of Mr. Wang and his family.  He's got a wonderful wife, Hua, who has fought tirelessly for his return, and she's really been an inspirational figure and has worked very, very hard on her husband's behalf.  He has a young son that he hasn’t seen in three years.   

Right now, Mr. Wang is focused on making sure that he's in good health and being reunited with his family.  And that's what Mr. Wang wants and that's what we want for him and what the President wants for him. 

I spoke with Mr. Wang last night.  He was incredibly grateful for the efforts of the United States on his behalf, and thanked the President, asked me to thank the President and thank Secretary Pompeo.  He was also grateful for the really excellent work.  And I want to recognize the involvement in these negotiations, especially over the past several weeks, of Special Representative Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran, and for Acting Special Presidential Envoy Hugh Dugan.   

Brian and Hugh were able to be there to pick up Mr. Wang in Switzerland, and they've done an excellent job.  And again, I want to thank Secretary Pompeo, Attorney General Barr, and, of course, the President, for all their tireless efforts on this. 

I've certainly invited Mr. Wang, when he feels up to it, to come visit me.  I've worked on his case for quite some time, and I've gotten to know his wife, and she's become a friend.  And so we would love to see the Wang family come visit me in the White House.  And my expectation is that, given the President's schedule and the Wang schedule, that the President would like to welcome him home to America.   

But again, we don’t have anything scheduled at this time, and I can't give you any clarity on when that might happen.  But I can tell you the President and his team and the team at State are thrilled that Mr. Wang is home and is free.  We'll be even happier when the rest of the Americans held in Iran are also free.  And we look forward to seeing him. 

Q    I just wanted to ask if there were any concerns about dropping -- what kind of message, dropping these charges, sends to Iran.  If DOJ drops charges for political reasons, why shouldn’t Iran believe that the U.S.'s justice system is political? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, that's a good question.  And, you know, the number one thing I want to emphasize -- and this has been true of every wrongful detainee or hostage case in which I've been involved and the President has been involved -- there's been absolutely no payment of cash or lifting of sanctions, or any sort of concessions or ransom in these cases, and certainly not with respect to Mr. Wang.  And that may be one of the reasons why it’s taken some time to at least obtain some of the recoveries from Iran that we’re tracking, especially Mr. Wang.   

So, you know, we are very strongly opposed to concessions with respect to obtaining Americans home that have been taken hostage or wrongfully detained for the very reason that you state.  We don’t want to encourage further hostage taking or wrongful detentions.   

So with respect to Mr. Soleimani, he was scheduled to appear in court on December 11.  I’ll refer questions about, specifically, if whether he would have been released on that date or had any further time to serve to the Department of Justice.   

But what I can tell you is, in light of the status of Mr. Soleimani’s case, this was an extraordinarily good outcome for the United States of America, that we were able to bring Mr. Wang home specifically in a simultaneous resolution of charges against Mr. Soleimani.  But I can tell you that this was an exceedingly good situation for the United States and for Mr. Wang.   

Q    We understand everything that you’ve said on the call thus far, but what do you say with regard to the fact that this is being viewed as a prisoner swap?  Is this a prisoner swap?  And second-fold, you know, there are a number of Americans, as you have noted, who are still in Iran.  So what is your message to those families this morning who are seeing this news, which is great, but are devastated by the fact that their family members are still being detained? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, number one, with respect to, you know, the characterization of this as a “prisoner swap,” look, you know, the facts are that the United States did drop charges against Mr. Soleimani.  We’re very pleased, given the status of Mr. Soleimani’s case.  And the DOJ can talk to you further about that.   

But we feel very good about our role in resolving the charges against Mr. Soleimani and the reciprocal humanitarian gesture by the Iranians to release Mr. Wang. This was a very good result for the United States.   

So folks can characterize it however they’d like, but we feel that given where Mr. Soleimani’s case was headed, the fact that we were able to use Iran’s interests in having him come home to spur the negotiations that led to the return of Mr. Wang, we view that as a very, very good deal for the United States.  

With respect to the other families, let me just step back from -- not just from the Iran families, but we have other hostages that are being held around the world.  And I’ve been very blessed to have been involved in the return of a large number of hostages and detainees over the past couple of years.  That’s been made possible because President Trump has made the return of Americans wrongfully held abroad a very top priority of his administration.  And those efforts, whether they, in some cases, resulted in the deaths of soldiers, very difficult diplomacy, whatever tools we used to bring people home -- when the hostages came home, that we're always joyful for that -- the hostage or the hostages that arrived home.  But at the same time, I always felt, and I believe the President has always felt, that the job wasn’t done because there were other Americans who remained held captive overseas.  And so, as soon as someone came home, we’d roll up our sleeves and start working on the next case.   

And, you know, specifically with respect to the Iran families, I know most of the families very well, and those families have become friends.  And I can tell you we have been working and we are working very, very hard to bring every one of the families home, whether it’s the Namazis or others.  But we’re working very hard to bring Americans, who are wrongfully held in Iran, home.   

And I know there’s going to be some disappointments.  Bob Levinson is somebody else that we’ve worked -- if there hasn’t been one interaction with either third parties, the Swiss, or other nations or with the Iranians, that Bob Levinson has not been the first person that we raised, seeking information regarding Bob -- seeking Bob’s return.   

So, you know, we are fully committed to bringing every American home in Iran and those that are detained elsewhere, whether it’s Austin Tice or others in Syria; the Venezuelans, the Citgo six who are in Caracas; Jeff Woodke who’s a humanitarian worker who’s held by terrorists -- likely in Mali.  We’re committed to bringing them all home.   

And specifically with respect to the Iran families, I think they can view this as potentially a harbinger of good news.  We were able to bring Mr. Wang home, and we’re joyful about his return and very happy for this family and his young wife and young son.  And we’re hopeful that this will lead us to further success with Iran.   

I can tell you that the team that’s working on these matters, Brian Hook and Hugh Dugan, are very experienced in this realm; that Secretary Pompeo  has given them every bit of support that they need; that our Swiss colleagues are highly professional and highly motivated to assist the United States.  And we’re grateful for their efforts.   

So we’re hopeful that this will give us some momentum to bring other Americans, who are currently being held in Iran, home.  We haven’t forgotten them.  We know them by name.  We’re working hard for them.  We’re praying for them.  And we expect that their families will be very happy for the Wang family.   

In fact, I can tell you that in almost every hostage return, I have received -- and it just goes to show the high character of these families and how they stick together.  And just about every time we’ve had somebody return, where it’s been public, I’ve received e-mails from other hostage families congratulating us on getting that hostage home and saying that it gives them hope for their family members.  And that’s a credit to these wonderful families who are working so hard to bring their loved ones home -- their father, son, brother -- to get them back to the United States to their friends and families.   

So I think this should be viewed as a hopeful sign by the other families.  Certainly they’re going to be disappointed that their loved one didn’t come home, but I think they’ll find some hope in this, and they can rest assured that the team that is working to bring these Americans home is already -- you know, as we celebrate Mr. Wang’s return, that they’re already turning to the remaining cases and rolling up their sleeves to make sure we can try and have some other victories for these families.  

 

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)

“I sincerely welcome the news of Princeton University student Xiyue Wang’s release from Iran and wish him and his family a heartfelt reunion they desperately deserve. I commend the work of all those involved in securing his release and thank our Swiss partners for their facilitation and others for their efforts over the years.  

Iranian authorities arrested Xiyue Wang in 2016 and later charged him with completely fabricated and politicized accusations. Mr. Wang, an American citizen, was conducting scholarly research for his doctorate at Princeton. For more than three years Iranian authorities have let him languish and kept his family, including his wife and young son, in anguish over his well-being and eventual return. 

My office has been engaged with numerous actors over the years in support of Wang and other political hostages. Earlier this year, I introduced the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery Act to give the United States more tools to help pressure governments to release political prisoners and hostages. 

“Tragically, Iran continues to pursue unjust, political detentions of its own citizens, Americans, and other foreigners. While we celebrate the release of Mr. Wang we cannot forget Robert Levinson, Michael White, and Baquer and Siamak Namazi and others unjustly detained.” 

—Dec. 7, 2019, in a press statement
 

Iranian Government Responses

 

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

 

Government Spokesman Ali Rabiei

“We are ready to cooperate to return all Iranians unlawfully imprisoned in the U.S.”

—Dec. 9, 2019, in a statement to reporters in Tehran

 

Other Responses

 

Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber

“The entire Princeton University community is overjoyed that Xiyue Wang can finally return home to his wife and young son, and we look forward to welcoming him back to campus. We are grateful to everyone, at Princeton and beyond, who has supported Xiyue and his family throughout his unjust imprisonment, and for all the efforts that have led to his release. We would like to especially extend our thanks to the United States government, the government of Switzerland, and the students, faculty and staff who continued to advocate for Xiyue’s freedom throughout this ordeal.”

—Dec. 7, 2019, in a press statement

 

Richardson Center Statement 

Governor Bill Richardson and the Richardson Center are excited for the release and return of Princeton student Xiyue Wang from Iran. Governor Richardson has been working for more than 20 months on behalf of his wife Hua Qu to secure Wang’s release. The Richardson Center also worked closely with former Congressman Jim Slattery. 

In the course of these negotiations, Governor Richardson met with Iranian officials regularly, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Ambassador Majid Ravanchi at the United Nations, and the White House National Security Council, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State, in order to set the terms of Wang’s release – an effort that came into fruition over the last two months. 

“It’s been over three years, but we are thankful and relieved that Xiyue Wang will finally be returning to his home and family,” said Governor Bill Richardson. “As is often the case, there’s been an entire team behind the scenes working steadily and quietly to free Xiyue Wang. There are more American and international prisoners in Iran, such as Bob Levinson and Michael White, whose families are awaiting their safe return. I hope this is the first of many humanitarian gestures.” 

Securing Wang’s release involved multifaceted efforts and negotiations, relying on personal relations and respect. Governor Richardson and the Richardson Center want to thank the Qatari Government for their partnership in helping secure the release of the wrongfully detained. The Qataris efforts, and those of others, often goes understated and thus less known to the American public. 

—Dec. 7, 2019, in a press statement

 

Xiyue Wang's Case

Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang was arrested on August 8, 2016 while conducting research in Iran on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty for his doctoral dissertation. In July 2017, Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of spying.

Wang was born in China and is a naturalized American citizen. He studied in China as a child and for his first year of college. He dropped out after securing a chance to study India before heading to the University of Washington in 2003, according to The Washington Post. He studied Russian and Eurasia studies at Harvard University before working as a Princeton in Asia fellow at the law firm Orrick in Hong Kong in 2008. Wang also worked as a translator for the International Committee of Red Cross in Afghanistan. In 2013, he began his doctoral work at Princeton University.

On July 17, 2017, Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of spying, according to Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, and Iranian media. A U.S. citizen “was gathering intelligence and was directly guided by the U.S.,” Ejehi announced at a weekly press briefing on July 16. He noted the sentence could be appealed but did not elaborate or reveal the individual’s name.

Mizan Online News Agency, however, identified Wang. In a report citing an anonymous source, Mizan alleged that Wang had been using his academic research as a cover and was working on a 4,500-page digital archive for “the world’s biggest anti-Iran spying organization.” The article said he infiltrated Iran’s national archive and gathered secret and top-secret intelligence for the U.S. State Department, the Harvard Kennedy School and the British Institute of Persian Studies.

State Department officials told journalists that they were aware of the reports about the dual national but that they would not detail efforts on this case or others for privacy reasons. “The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security-related changes," an official said.

Princeton University also issued a statement saying they were “very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence.” Princeton has reportedly been working with Wang’s family, the U.S. government and lawyers to help secure his release.

In August 2017, Iranian authorities denied Wang’s appeal. “I am devastated that my husband’s appeal has been denied, and that he continues to be unjustly imprisoned in Iran on groundless accusations of espionage and collaboration with a hostile government against the Iranian state,” his wife, Hua Qu, said in a statement.

In a November 2017 interview with NBC, Qu stated her husband had attempted suicide and that his condition was “very desperate.” She also called on the Trump administration to work with the Iranian government to bring about his release.

On August 23, 2018,  the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a statement calling on Iran to immediately release Wang. It said that Iran had “no legal basis for the arrest and detention” of Wang and that he had been wrongly accused of espionage. The Working Group obtained a response to the petition from the government of Iran. The Iranian response, however, failed to explain how Wang had cooperated with a foreign state against Iran’s government or “how Mr. Wang’s trial on espionage charges posed a national security threat so serious that it warranted a closed hearing.”

 

Masoud Soleimani's Case

In October 2018, the United States arrested Masoud Soleimani, a stem cell researcher and visiting scholar at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, with a secret indictment on charges that he had violated U.S. sanctions against the transport of biological material. Soleimani denied the charges and was being held without bail while awaiting his court date before the swap.

The FBI accused Soleimani of trying to export vials of growth hormone to Iran in September 2016 through the help of a former student. Federal prosecutors said Soleimani ordered the proteins from U.S. companies and solicited Mahboobe Ghaedi, a student and permanent U.S. resident from Iran, to bring the samples back to Iran when she traveled to visit family.

The U.S. Justice Department charged Soleimani with two counts of conspiring and attempting to export biological materials to Iran without authorization. Soleimani’s lawyers claim he was simply trying to obtain the samples for a fraction of the price he would have paid for them in Iran. They argued that export licenses were not required since the proteins were obtained for noncommercial use. The United States revoked Soleimani’s and refused to grant him bail while he awaited his trial.
 

 

Updated