Tehran has sentenced another Western national to a lengthy prison term on spurious espionage charges. The incarceration of Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student at Princeton University first arrested last summer, not only reflects Iran’s conspiratorial fears of Western infiltration, but also marks a likely effort to extort Washington for further concessions.
On Monday, in fact, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hinted at the possibility of a prisoner swap. Asked about Wang’s imprisonment during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, Iran’s top diplomat highlighted America’s imprisonment of Iranians accused of facilitating sanctions violations. “I’m certainly ready to do all it takes on my side to help resolve this humanitarian problem,” he said.
Zarif’s rhetoric echoes President Barack Obama’s description of an earlier prisoner exchange as a “reciprocal humanitarian gesture.” In January 2016, the Obama administration secured the freedom of four Americans by releasing seven Iranian sanctions violators, dropping charges on 14 other at-large Iranians suspected of similar offenses, and airlifting $400 million in cash to the regime.
Notably, however, the trade excluded an Iranian-American, a U.S. permanent resident, two British-Iranians, and a Canadian resident, all of whom remain in Iranian prison today. This decision likely emerged from Tehran’s desire to preserve leverage in future bargaining with the West. Since then, Iran has upped the ante by seizing at least seven more Western nationals, including Wang and three Iranian-Americans.
The Islamic Republic’s targeting of Western nationals stems from its revolutionary ideology. In Tehran’s view, the West seeks to subvert the regime by promoting a “soft war” aimed at discrediting its Islamist creed. Thus, as a matter of policy, Iran regards visiting Westerners with suspicion, fearing that they constitute Western agents who threaten the regime from within.
Tehran harbors the same concern regarding dual nationals, which it views as potential defectors to the nation’s adversaries. “We do not recognize dual citizenship,” Zarif told the Council on Foreign Relations, “so for us Iranian-Americans are considered to be Iranians and subjected to our own laws.” Last year, an Iranian official cited a warning from regime intelligence that other governments seek to use dual citizens to facilitate “foreign infiltration” of Iran.
Thus, on Sunday, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, described Wang as an “American infiltrator” who “entered Iran in a particularly sneaky way” and “was involved in gathering intelligence.” Mizan, the judiciary’s official newspaper, claimed that Princeton “was engaged in a web of ties with U.S. and British political, security and intelligence agencies.”
In reality, Tehran had granted Wang a visa without objection. As Princeton noted in a statement, Wang sought only to conduct “scholarly research on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty in connection with his Ph.D. dissertation.” Stephen Kotkin, Wang’s adviser at Princeton, called the trip “standard practice for scholars in this region and elsewhere.”
Washington should reject Tehran’s attempts to establish a false moral equivalence between Iran’s Western hostages and America’s incarceration of Iranian lawbreakers. Instead, it should make clear that the new administration, unlike its predecessor, not only will refuse to pay ransoms of any kind, but will actually increase economic pressure on Iran.
In this sense, the Trump administration’s announcement on Monday of new sanctions on 18 Iranian actors marks a good but insufficient first step. These designations target a small number of actors responsible for Iran’s illicit military procurement and software theft, and all but ignore Tehran’s serial human rights abuses.
In the coming months, America should sanction the thousands of Iranian companies that facilitate the full range of its malign behavior, from its regional aggression to its domestic repression. In so doing, the United States can send Iran a message that its efforts at blackmail will no longer find a receptive ear in Washington.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.