Doctoral student spends third year in Iranian jail

The third anniversary of the unjust detention of an American student in Iran was marked on 7 August. For most of us, it was just another day – but for Xiyue Wang and his family it was yet another year apart.

Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University doctoral student, had been gathering archival research for his dissertation in Tehran, capital of Iran. Despite having prior approval from the Iranian authorities to access publicly available files focusing mainly on Eurasian history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was detained and later charged with espionage. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Freedom to pursue knowledge

His family members – particularly his wife Hua Qu and now six-year-old son Shaofan – are anxiously awaiting his release. While Xiyue Wang languishes in an Iranian jail, we owe it to him to heed a few reminders.

First, we should never take the freedom to pursue knowledge for granted. In the era of ‘fake news’, we cannot always rely on the media to inform us.

Finding multiple sources and asking critical questions help us to make informed decisions. Sadly, in many parts of the world, an informed citizenry is considered a threat. According to an annual report by Scholars at Risk, there were 294 attacks on university communities in 47 countries from 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2018.

Some governments will do whatever they can to filter or even block access to information. For example, a younger generation in China is growing up having no idea what happened in Tiananmen Square just over 30 years ago. The Tiananmen Square massacre has been ‘erased’ from Chinese search engine results.

Seeking cultural understanding

Second, the ability to understand and empathise with others is a fundamental principle of the democratic process. It is important to seek other viewpoints in order to find common ground.

This is an especially important reminder for Americans as the country enters into an already divisive electoral cycle. Some are already disgusted with the vitriol between President Donald Trump and the vast field of Democratic contenders.

Wang grew up in China and immigrated to the United States in 2001 with his mother. He became a naturalised citizen in 2009. He worked hard and was a voracious learner of languages, including Persian, Turkic, Russian and Pashto – what better way to create bridges among people!

While most Americans view Iran as an enemy and will not attempt to understand – let alone appreciate – its rich history, Wang looked beyond Iran’s geopolitical mask to learn more about its history, people and culture. It is unfortunate that the leaders of Iran could not see that they had more to gain by allowing Wang to continue to conduct his research rather than use him as a bargaining chip.

Leave no-one behind

Finally, while Americans disagree with one another on a range of topics, most will agree on this: ‘leave no American behind’.

Many covet United States citizenship because of the protection and privileges afforded to it by the US government and it is ingrained in the American psyche never to abandon its citizens. The US government understands the importance of securing the release of Americans held abroad, even if the risks are high.

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, the media relentlessly kept the fate of 52 American hostages in the public spotlight. Nightline, featuring news anchor Ted Koppel, included a daily tally of the hostages’ ordeal. It was a poignant topic during the 1980 presidential election and some argue that President Jimmy Carter’s failure to secure their release cost him re-election.

Even US Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was criticised for his conduct leading to his five-year captivity by the Taliban, was freed after President Barack Obama controversially agreed to a prisoner swap of high-level Taliban leaders.

The bottom line is that Xiyue Wang is an American citizen, and we should not forget him.

Despite the growing tension in US-Iran relations, we should demand that the US government remains vigilant in securing his release. America is a great nation, and what makes it great is its freedom to pursue knowledge, democratic values and steadfast devotion to its citizens.

To find out more on how to advocate for Xiyue Wang, go to the Scholars at Risk website here. Find out more about Wang and his predicament on the Princeton University website here.

Jonathan C Rothermel is a professor of political science at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, United States.