An American graduate student detained in Iran for more than three years has been freed after the Trump administration agreed to a prisoner exchange with Tehran.
The release of Xiyue Wang and Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian held in the U.S. on charges of violating American sanctions on Iran, comes at a moment of exceptionally high tensions between Iran and the United States. It’s unlikely to lead to any thaw in the relationship, but it could offer some hope for other Americans imprisoned in Iran.
President Donald Trump announced early Saturday that Wang, who had been held on questionable espionage charges while doing academic research in Iran, had been released. Wang was a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of History at Princeton University.
Trump later in the day took a shot at his predecessor while appealing to the Iranians to negotiate a new agreement with the United States covering its nuclear and other activities.
“Taken during the Obama Administration (despite $150 Billion gift), returned during the Trump Administration,” Trump tweeted. referring to Wang.”Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, meanwhile, tweeted out a picture of himself and Soleimani in a plane, with the phrase “going home.” He also confirmed Wang’s release in another tweet.
The prisoner exchange was facilitated by Switzerland. Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy to Iran, flew to Switzerland to meet Wang, according to a senior Trump administration official. He took with him Soleimani, the official said.
The senior administration official said the U.S. felt comfortable releasing Soleimani because he was expected to be freed from prison soon as part of a plea deal anyway. Soleimani is an Iranian scientist whose work includes stem cell research. He‘s accused of trying to obtain recombinant proteins for his research in ways U.S. officials allege violate sanctions. His lawyers insist the charges are overblown.
Asked if the Iranians were offered any other kind of incentive, including money, to free Wang, the official said no. “No sanctions relief, no pallets of cash, no change in policy,” the senior official said.
The “pallets of cash” reference was a nod to Republican criticisms of a prisoner exchange with Islamist-led Iran that occurred under President Barack Obama. That exchange in January 2016 freed several Americans, including Jason Rezaian, a journalist working for The Washington Post. Their release coincided with the formal implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
The Obama team had negotiated a separate $1.7 billion settlement of a decades-old arbitration case with Iran around the same time. The first installment of that settlement was sent to Iran as the prisoners were released. It was in cash due to U.S. sanctions that limited Iran’s ability to access the international financial system.
Republicans said it effectively amounted to a ransom payment to a regime that would use the money for nefarious purposes.
Republicans also objected to Obama‘’s willingness to unfreeze around $150 billion in Iran‘s own assets as part of the nuclear deal. Aides to Obama said Iran would really only be able to access around $50 billion of the money because much of it was tied up in projects or otherwise not available. Still, Trump has repeatedly alleged that Obama essentially gave the Iranians $150 billion.
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked the Swiss government for its assistance in freeing Wang, though neither mentioned in his statements that Soleimani had been freed or that a prisoner swap was involved. The Swiss often act as intermediary for the U.S. with Iran because Washington and Tehran technically have no diplomatic ties.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has helped secure the freedom for international hostages and prisoners, said in a statement that he worked with Zarif, former Rep. Jim Slattery and U.S. officials to negotiate Wang’s release.
“It’s been over three years, but we are thankful and relieved that Xiyue Wang will finally be returning to his home and family,” Richardson said in a statement. “There are more American and international prisoners in Iran. … I hope this is the first of many humanitarian gestures.”
Princeton University president Chris Eisgruber issued a statement thanking the U.S. and Swiss governments for their efforts.
“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,” Eisgruber said.