Iran and the United States experienced a brief period of negotiations and dialogue that led to a prisoner exchange Saturday. A detained Princeton scholar, Xiyue Wang, was released from detention in Tehran in exchange for scientist Massoud Soleimani, who was arrested last year on charges of violating trade sanctions. For now it doesn’t appear that this exchange is a sign of the beginning of broader talks between Washington and Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif broke the news of the exchange with a tweet. “Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly,” Zarif wrote. “Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government.” President Donald Trump released a statement shortly thereafter. “Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016,” Trump said. “We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.”
Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, traveled to Switzerland with Soleimani to make the exchange for Wang. The Princeton scholar is likely to be evaluated for a few days before returning to the United States. Wang was arrested in Iran in 2016 while studying Farsi and conducting research for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history. Iran accused him of having ties to U.S. intelligence agencies, which Princeton and the U.S. government long denied. In September of last year, a United Nations committee concluded that Iran had “no legal basis” for his detention. Wang, who has a wife and young son, was born in Beijing in 1980 and became a U.S. citizen in 2009. There were signs in recent days that his release could be imminent, including a tweet from his lawyer.
Soleimani, a stem cell researcher, was arrested on charges that he tried to transfer growth hormones to Iran without a license. His lawyers have long said he is innocent. Regardless, U.S. officials said that his release was worth it for Wang’s freedom particularly considering that Soleimani was due to be released as early as next month on a plea agreement.
The New York Times reports that officials in Washington believe that at least part of the reason why Iran went through with the exchange was to get a good news story amid the recent repression of domestic protests. Estimates say hundreds have been killed and thousands imprisoned in the protests sparked by a sharp increase in gas prices. But Iran had been mentioning the possibility of the swap for months. In an interview with NPR in September, Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, had pushed for the exchange. “I have offered to exchange them, because as foreign minister I cannot go to our court and simply tell them, ‘Release this man,’” Zarif said. “I can go to the court and tell them, ‘I can exchange this man for an Iranian,’ and then have a standing, have a legal standing in the court.”
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