Iran sentences Chinese-American student to 10 years for espionage

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Xiyue Wang had twitter his thanks to researcher who helped him access Iran's archives. Xiyue Wang had twitter his thanks to researcher who helped him access Iran’s archives. Photo: Princeton/NYT

Istanbul: A Chinese-American PhD student Iran has accused of espionage has been sentenced by an Iranian court to 10 years in prison, the judiciary’s official news agency says, a move likely to raise tensions with the Trump administration ahead of a deadline to waive some Iran sanctions.

The Mizan news agency named the American as 37-year-old Xiyue Wang, a graduate student and researcher at Princeton University. The Sunday report said he was born in Beijing and is a dual Chinese American citizen, but that information could not be confirmed.

Hossein Fereidoun, brother and top aide of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been detained over financial ... Hossein Fereidoun, brother and top aide of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been detained over financial matters. Photo: AP

Earlier in the day, judicial spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi announced that a US citizen had been sentenced for “infiltration”.

“It was verified and determined that he was gathering [information] and was involved in infiltration,” Ejehi said at a news conference in Tehran, the Associated Press reported.

Mizan, which is affiliated with Iran’s hard-line judiciary, later reported that Wang had been sentenced as part of an “infiltration project” that included the gathering of “confidential articles” to send back to the US State Department and Western academic institutions. It said Wang used the cover of a masters’ degree research to spy. 

The report, which included a photo from the Princeton University website, also published a quote from Wang in which he had praised the British Institute of Persian Studies for facilitating access to Iran’s National Archives and other libraries. The quote was used as evidence of his spying activities, the report said. Princeton University did not respond to a request for comment. The report said Wang was building a digital archive for an anti-Iran organisation.

“I have been having trouble accessing Tehran’s archives and libraries,” Wang said in the 2015-2016 annual report of the British Institute of Persian Studies, a non-profit organisation based in London.

“Mrs Reyhanpour offered to help,” he said of one of the institute’s employees. “And within a few days, she put me in contact with senior scholars at the National Archive . . . Without Mrs Reyhanpour’s help it would be hard to imagine how long it would have taken for me to become acquainted with academic institutions in Iran.”

Wang’s reported conviction comes at a particularly tense time for US-Iranian relations, which have rapidly deteriorated since US President Donald Trump took office.

Under the previous administration, the United States and other world powers negotiated a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. It was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and an end to Iran’s global isolation.

But since then, the Trump administration has stepped up its anti-Iran rhetoric and placed US participation in the nuclear deal under review. Monday is the deadline for the White House to decide whether to issue a waiver on nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, a provision that is required periodically under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. The administration is expected to approve the waiver, despite an internal debate on how to respond to Iran’s human rights abuses and support for militant groups like Hezbollah.

“The Iranian regime continues to detain US citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related changes,” a US State Department official said on Sunday. “We call for the immediate release of all US citizens unjustly detained in Iran so they can return to their families.”

It was unclear how long Wang may have been in Iranian custody, but Mizan reported authorities arrested him in August 2016 as he was leaving the country. Facebook and LinkedIn pages with Wang’s photo and similar work and study history indicate he studied at Harvard University from 2006 to 2008, and later worked as a Pashto language interpreter for the International Committee for the Red Cross in Afghanistan.

The website of Wang’s adviser at Princeton, Stephen Kotkin, lists Wang’s PhD thesis as “Islamic Inner Asia”. Kotkin did not respond to requests for comment.

Also on Sunday, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was detained for unspecified financial crimes, the judicial spokesman said. Hossein Fereidoun is a close adviser of the President and was involved in the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal with world powers. Hard-line conservatives in Iran had long accused him of corruption.