Graeme Wood profiled Xiyue Wang for the Atlantic earlier this year in “The Princeton Historian Mugged by Reality.” Last week the Free Beacon’s Chuck Ross updated the story in “Historian Says Princeton Left Him To ‘Rot’ in Iranian Prison.” Adapting the heading of Wood’s Atlantic profile, the update might be titled “The Princeton historian mugged by Princeton.” That is more or less the story told by Wang in the lawsuit he filed against Princeton last month in New Jersey state court (the subject of Ross’s story). I have embedded the complaint below.
Working toward a Ph.D. under the supervision of the eminent Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin, Wang traveled to Tehran for archival research. Wood’s enraging profile tells the story of Wang’s arrest and imprisonment by Iranian authorities in the course of his research. Tortured by the Iranians, Wnag “confessed” to being a spy. After 40 months in Evin Prison, the Trump administration secured his release.
Wood’s profile captures Wang’s awakening from the falsehoods and illusions about Iran disseminated on campus at Princeton and elsewhere in the United States. He calls his time in prison “involuntary fieldwork.” The torture to which he was subjected is a disgusting trademark of the regime, although the time in prison was not entirely wasted. He perfected his Farsi and learned French. French must be something like the tenth language he has learned in the course of his studies.
Reflecting on his long stay in Iran prior to his arrest, Wang told Wood that that he met no supporters of the regime — unlike his time in the United States. Princeton professors talking with him about his imprisonment wanted to blame it on Trump, even though it occurred under Obama and Trump secured his release. Wood quotes Wang: “What are they teaching their students? The facts just don’t matter.”
Before the Trump administration secured Wang’s release, Laura Secor covered Wang’s story in a long 2018 New York Times Magazine article. With Wang imprisoned in Evin, Secor reported on Princeton’s approach to his case:
[T]he university’s public strategy was silence. Experts, whose names Princeton declined to disclose, advised keeping Wang’s detention out of the media, in part because then the Iranians could declare the arrest a mistake and release him without fanfare.
The advice ran counter to that of many experts with whom I spoke: Iranian human rights specialists, a former Iranian official and at least one State Department official. But as Durkee explained to me, Princeton had determined that publicity and pressure would neither change the Iranians’ minds nor do more than distract the people in Washington who were already on the case.
This bears on Wang’s lawsuit. Ross conveniently summarizes the gist of Wang’s 45-page complaint:
In a lawsuit filed last month, Wang accuses Princeton of trying to keep his wife from publicizing his case following his arrest in order to protect its reputation and to maintain political ties in Iran. Wang blasted Princeton and its Iran Center for heeding the advice of “pro-regime activists and academics” before and after his arrest. Wang alleges that Princeton lawyers and administrators urged him not to seek refuge in the Swiss embassy in Tehran after he began to fear for his safety.
“Everything Princeton did and abstained from doing was centered around absolving its institutional responsibility, protecting its institutional reputation, and maintaining its political relations with Iran,” Wang says in the lawsuit, which has not been previously reported.
Wang’s lawsuit threatens to reveal Princeton’s efforts to forge ties with Iran and the school’s internal deliberations after his arrest. The historian identifies researchers and scholars at Princeton he says are sympathetic to the Iranian regime who he claims stymied efforts to free him from prison. Wang notes that Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat, serves as a scholar at Princeton. Mousavian was ambassador to Germany when four Iranian dissidents were assassinated on German soil. He attended the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader killed by American forces last year.
Wang also questions advice he received before and during his trip from a Princeton research director whose father is a former Iranian diplomat.
Wang’s saga highlights the misplaced optimism that gripped academia and Washington power circles in the wake of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.
Wang, who now serves as national security adviser to Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), says his advisers ignored the regime’s support for terror organizations and its penchant for arresting Americans on false charges.
“It’s a good time to go [to Iran]—looks like they are in a good mood over there. Take advantage of it!” Dr. Kevan Harris, one of Wang’s advisers at the Iran Center, wrote Wang on Jan. 17, 2016, according to the lawsuit.
Anastasia Vrachnos, a Princeton vice provost, told Wang in a Jan. 28, 2016, email, “It’s an exciting and dynamic time to be there.”
The then-director of Princeton’s Iran Center, John Haldon, said Wang studying in Iran would be a boon for the school. He called it a “pioneering visit for Princeton” that would allow the school “to send other graduate students to carry out research there” and “support Iranian graduates should they wish to work at Princeton.”
Wang’s troubles began as soon as he arrived in Tehran. He says he quickly figured out that Princeton administrators had not laid the groundwork for him to be able to access materials he needed for his research.
“Princeton University was grossly unprepared to send Mr. Wang to Iran and unable to provide the most basic logistical support for Mr. Wang after his arrival in Iran, which directly contributed to, and resulted in, Mr. Wang’s arrest, detention, torture, and physical and mental abuse,” the lawsuit reads.
Wang was repeatedly blocked from accessing government archives because he was an American. He said he came under surveillance but was not initially concerned that he was in danger. Wang’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when Iranian police took his passport and laptop.
Wang said Princeton downplayed his concerns. In a July 24, 2016, email, Haldon, the Iran Center director, advised Wang to “sit tight and say nothing to anyone outside the small group of people who already know about the situation.”
“Prof. Haldon and Princeton were clearly trying to prevent Mr. Wang’s situation from being known beyond the University,” Wang alleges.
According to the lawsuit, two Princeton lawyers and Vrachnos, the vice provost, advised Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, that Wang should not seek sanctuary in the Swiss embassy. He alleges that Mousavian, the former Iranian diplomat, and other Princeton employees with ties to the Iranian government “made the intentional decision not to utilize their political capital” in Iran to help him.
“Instead of taking action to assist and accelerate Mr. Wang’s release, Princeton chose instead to protect their own reputation over Mr. Wang’s health and well-being,” the lawsuit reads. “Princeton did nothing but try to suppress news about the case.”
Jubin Katiraie followed up on Ross’s Free Beacon story in Iran Focus’s “How Princeton Sacrificed Its Scholar To Maintain Ties With Tehran.” The story collects quotes from other scholars who have found themselves “guests of the Ayatollah,” as Mark Bowden titled his 2006 book on the American hostages taken by Iran in 1979.
Neither Wang nor Princeton responded to Ross’s requests for comment on the lawsuit. Professor Kotkin did not respond to my request for comment
Princeton lists Wang as a student in his seventh year of graduate study. He remains a Ph.D. candidate in history. As Ross notes, however, Wang now works on Capitol Hill for Rep. Jim Banks, where he has a great contribution to make.