For those within Iran’s regime, the point is to retain power at all cost. This means suppressing any forms of dissent, while at the same time, making a statement on the international scene by jailing foreign nationals for trumped up reasons.
The latest foreign national is an American citizen who was jailed for espionage is Xiyue Wang, a 37-year old researcher from Princeton University. Wang, who was originally born in China, was arrested in August 2016 while trying to leave Iran. He has now been sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage. He has been given the right to appeal. According to the Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, Wang had “digitally archived” 4,500 pages of Iranian documents for foreign research institutions, including Princeton and the British Institute of Persian Studies.
“It was verified and determined that he was gathering (information) and was involved in infiltration,” said Judiciary spokesman Gholamhosein Mohseni Ejehi during a press briefing.
In a statement, Princeton said Wang is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the university’s history department, studying late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history. Wang was arrested while he was conducting research on the Qajar dynasty, which ruled in Iran until 1925. According to Mizan, a publicly available institute report was the evidence that demonstrated Wang was on a covert mission.
“We are very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence,” said a statement released by Princeton. “His family and the university are distressed at his continued imprisonment and are hopeful that he will be released after his case is heard by the appellate authorities in Tehran.”
There are at least three other Americans imprisoned in Iran, and a fourth has been freed on bond. An unknown number of Iranians with European passports have also been jailed. Many of these individuals claim dual citizenship, which Iran does not acknowledge.
Many of these prisoners are being used as pawns between those in the judiciary who see the future control of the regime differently from those who are part of Rouhani’s government, which sees foreign interaction as the means to keep the regime alive and in control. The judiciary is focused on internalizing power within Iran, including limited contact with the international community.
Another sign of this internal struggle can be seen in the recent arrest of Rouhani’s brother on corruption charges. Hossein Fereydoun has been accused of money laundering and theft of government funds that dates back several years. Various analysts believe Fereydoun was targeted for his close relationship with Rouhani and because he was part of the team that negotiated the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The larger issue is not a question of the regime giving more democratic freedoms or addressing its human rights abuses. The reality is that the regime is determined to stay in power, but how they maintain that power in the wake of domestic issues and international pressure continues to be a source of friction between the factions.
In the meantime, the U.S. has called on Iran to release all U.S. citizens immediately and the other foreigners being detained on fabricated national security charges.
“The safety and security of U.S. citizens remains a top priority. All U.S. citizens, especially dual nationals considering travel to Iran, should carefully read our latest travel warning,” said a statement from the U.S. State Department. “The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national security-related charges.”
Officially, Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since April 1980 in the wake of the Islamic revolution, although former President Obama attempted to warm relations. The new administration, however, has indicated that the thaw is over.