WASHINGTON — Iran on Saturday freed an American graduate student who had been imprisoned in Tehran for more than three years on suspicion of being a spy, in an exchange of prisoners at a moment of high tensions with Washington.
The American, Xiyue Wang, was flown in a Swiss government airplane from Tehran to Zurich, where he was met by Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, according to two senior US officials.
Wang, 38, was a fourth-year Princeton University graduate student conducting research in Iran when he was arrested there in August 2016. He was charged with espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison. American officials deny that Wang, who had been locked in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, was a spy.
In exchange for Wang’s release, the United States freed Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist who was arrested at a Chicago airport last year and was convicted on charges of violating US trade sanctions against Iran. The Justice Department has dropped those charges. American officials said that Soleimani’s release was a low price to pay for Wang’s freedom because Soleimani was expected to be released from prison as early as next month under a plea agreement.
The White House confirmed the prisoner swap early on Saturday with a statement from President Trump. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also confirmed the deal on Twitter and posted photos of himself accompanying Soleimani home on an Iranian jet.
The senior American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they saw no indication that the exchange portended a larger dialogue with Iran.
But another senior administration official who briefed reporters on Saturday said he was “hopeful” the trade could signal a future willingness by Iran to discuss its broader relationship with Washington.
The transaction is likely to command the close attention of Trump, who has shown a particular interest in prisoner and hostage releases, which he has marked with showy events at the White House. A senior administration official said on Saturday that he expected Trump would like to meet with Wang.
As part of a “maximum pressure campaign,” Trump has targeted the country with severe economic sanctions. The president, who withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, has said he hopes to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program and regional aggression. On Wednesday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, reiterated that Iran would be prepared to meet with the parties to the nuclear deal, including the United States, “whenever the US lifts the unfair sanctions.”
Trump administration officials believe Iran may have released Wang to soften its image and deflect attention from a recent brutal crackdown on mass domestic protests. American officials believe the unrest has left hundreds dead and as many as 7,000 imprisoned, drawing condemnation from around the world.
Hook, working through Swiss intermediaries who often serve as a diplomatic channel between Washington and Tehran, negotiated the prisoner exchange. Hook had had no direct contact with Iranian officials since a March 2018 meeting in Vienna shortly before Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement. In Vienna, Hook insisted to Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, that Wang’s transparent activities made clear he was no covert operative. Araghchi countered that perhaps Wang had simply not been trained well, according to a senior US official.