Until his release in December, American student Xiyue Wang spent more than three years behind bars in Iran — not because Iranian authorities hoped to glean any information from him, he says, but because they believed he would be useful in their negotiations with the U.S.
Wang, a U.S. citizen and graduate student at Princeton University, was released in a prisoner exchange between the two countries.
He says he had been in Iran for academic research related to his doctorate in Eurasian history, something Princeton — which made behind-the-scenes efforts to secure his release — confirmed.
Iranian authorities sentenced Wang in 2017 to 10 years in prison for espionage.
But the officials who interrogated him over the years didn't seem to care much about what he did or didn't know, according to Wang. He says he was being held for different reasons.
"They told me quite explicitly just that 'we need a deal with America,' " he tells Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition.
"They were very straightforward about that," he says. "They said, 'We want our money back from the United States. We want our detainees back, and you have to be a spy in order for that to happen.' "
Iranian officials threatened that he would not see his wife and son if he did not confess, he says.
So, he says they ordered him simply to write, in English and Persian, that he was a spy.
"One sentence," he explains: "'I am a spy for the United States.' That's it."
"I was a hostage," he adds. "They made it very clear. They didn't use the word 'hostage,' but from what they described the situation, I was a hostage. 'It's not important what you've done' — they told me, 'We know what you have done — but it is important that you are a spy, so we can make a deal with United States.' "
Wang ultimately spent some 40 months in a prison north of Tehran, during which he says he was tried in court and sentenced without being allowed to see evidence against him.
Now he is back in the U.S., studying and teaching again at Princeton. Diplomats from both countries agreed to swap him with an Iranian scientist, Massoud Soleimani, whom U.S. authorities had accused of violating trade sanctions.
After a struggle to publicize Wang's cause and obtain his release, his wife Hua Qu calls the experience and its safe conclusion "a victory of humanity and diplomacy."
Wang reunited with his wife and son in December in Germany, where U.S. and international authorities managed the exchange.
"That moment, I felt as if time had stopped for us for three-and-a-half years," he remembers. But of course, it hadn't: "My son — he was very different, taller. He was a chubby little boy as a 3-year-old, when I left. Now he's 7."
Wang says he learned an important lesson during his ordeal that he'd like to see other scholars follow — that it's not a "good idea" for U.S. nationals to visit Iran until the relationship between the two countries stabilizes.
But aside from that takeaway, he says he remains confused about what the travail was all for, exactly.
"Of course I was angry. I think that that's to be expected. Who wouldn't be, if a person spends 40 months in prison for nothing?" he says. "But I don't exactly know — and it is to my great interest to find out."
Wang says he hopes one day he will find out what really happened.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Xiyue Wang is a scholar at Princeton University. He spent 3 1/2 years in prison in Iran. Iran freed him last year after the U.S. released an imprisoned Iranian. Xiyue Wang told his story in public for the first time to our co-host Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: He's an immigrant from China, an American, a scholar studying Central Asian peoples, which is what brought him to Iranian archives. Wang still recalls the feeling of walking freely through the mountainside city of Tehran.
XIYUE WANG: It's exciting for me as American who aspired to study this part of the world and finally got to actually step on the ground and smell the country and then hear the language and then see the monuments.
INSKEEP: He says Iranians were welcoming and hospitable, so much so that even when they stopped his research, he wasn't too worried at first. When government agents questioned him in 2016, he began to think he might be deported.
WANG: But I didn't think it would be, like, a 1,217-day ordeal.
INSKEEP: The ordeal began as agents questioned the American and took his passport. After weeks, they told him to pack for the airport to go home.
WANG: But instead of going to the airport - we should be heading south, we were heading north. And then I was sitting in a small car with two very hefty guys on both my sides. And one guy quietly took my cellphone off my hand, switched it off and put it in his pocket. And I was - I could feel my heart start beating very fast. I was truly, truly freaking out.
INSKEEP: The destination to the north was the saddest address in all of Iran, Evin Prison. Authorities accused him of being a spy and did not listen when the scholar denied it. They made him strip. They gave him a prison uniform, which was baggy and light blue. And they locked him alone in a green-walled cell, solitary confinement.
WANG: And that was a maddening experience. I immediately collapsed and burst into tears, crying out loud. I was shaking. I could not stop myself. And I started walking around the cell.
INSKEEP: Xiyue Wang saw no one for days except interrogators who were shockingly frank. He must confess to spying, they said, or they'd never let him out. He says he was a hostage.
WANG: They told me, it's futile for you to resist. We need a deal with America. And if you don't confess, we have no case. We have no case. We have no deal. So you will stay. You will go back to the solitary until you confess.
INSKEEP: And then they would trade you for some Iranian in the United States.
WANG: Yes. Yes. They were very straightforward about that. They said, we want our money back from the United States. We want our detainees back. Amazingly, they asked me to write down one sentence in Persian and English. One sentence, I am a spy for the United States. That's it.
INSKEEP: Not what you had spied about...
WANG: Nothing, nothing.
INSKEEP: ...Or what information you'd been seeking?
WANG: No, nothing else. Put your fingerprint and signature. One sentence, I am a spy for the United States. That was it.
INSKEEP: Though he says he'd done nothing, Iran convicted Wang in the briefest of court proceedings and put him in cells with other prisoners. This is his version of events. Iran has not published his court record or any evidence against him. He passed some of the next few years talking with other prisoners. One day in a common room, a fellow inmate introduced himself, Siamak Namazi, an American businessman held since 2015. On other days, Wang studied languages or read in the prison library.
WANG: They have a huge collection of materials acquired from the U.S. embassy as evidence of U.S. espionage against Iran. So I...
INSKEEP: From the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979?
INSKEEP: During all this time, he had family home in Princeton, N.J., a wife and son - a toddler when Wang was first imprisoned. It helped Wang to call them.
WANG: But as time goes, I think those calls placed a lot of frustration and pressure on my wife because, apparently, things were not moving as expected. And she had to hear me complaining all the time. And that wasn't an easy thing to do for her.
INSKEEP: The woman on the receiving end of those calls, Hua Qu, was advocating for his release. She met with officials in the Trump administration. She spoke with journalists, including two interviews on this program. After speaking with her last year, we took her words to the foreign minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, in this interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
INSKEEP: May I tell you what she said? She said, my husband is innocent. He's not a spy. He's just a student. We just want to plead for their clemency to let him go.
JAVAD ZARIF: I would love to see him go back to his family. But let me also tell you about a professor who is in a U.S. prison for the last nine months without charge
INSKEEP: Foreign Minister Zarif laid out the case of an Iranian he wanted freed. In the months that followed, Iranian and U.S. diplomats, talking through intermediaries, arranged a trade of that Iranian for the American, Xiyue Wang. How did you find out that you really were going home?
WANG: So one day, it was around 3:10 in the afternoon, I was having a French lesson with a Iranian prisoner. And they announced my name. And then they said, you're being released. And that came as a huge surprise. And all prisoners came from all the cells clapping, congratulating me, hugging me. You are going home.
INSKEEP: Switzerland, which handles U.S. affairs in Iran, sent a plane to take him to Europe. His family came to meet him at a U.S. air base in Germany.
WANG: My wife was beautiful. She didn't age. I thought this situation would have impact on her so much that she'll become older, but she didn't. She looked very beautiful and happy. I was just elated, as if - that moment, I felt as if that time has stopped for us for 3 1/2 years.
INSKEEP: Xiyue Wang resumed teaching classes at Princeton. He's gotten to know his 7-year-old son, having missed half his life so far. Months after being released from prison, the father is still adjusting.
WANG: I have become a difficult person for my wife to live with. Yeah. I'm kind of grumpy these days. And (laughter) I have bad temper. I think this process will last very long. I have to process what has happened. I'm still in the process of finding out.
INSKEEP: He says he looks forward to a day when U.S. relations improve with Iran and outside scholars will be able to study there safely. For now, Xiyue Wang has a simple message - don't go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "BEHOLDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.