This week marked three years since the US citizen and Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang was arrested and accused of spying. His 10-year sentence matches that of other Americans who have apparently been taken hostage by hardline Iranian authorities on the basis of little other than their US citizenship. Wang was the subject of a number of retrospective reports and editorials marking the anniversary of his imprisonment, and many of these have quoted his wife, Hua Qu, with regard to the false nature of the charges against him.
“These documents have nothing to do with any contemporary Iran politics, and they are certainly not confidential,” she said of the materials that Wang had obtained via Iranian libraries after receiving permission from the Iranian government to visit the country and conduct research related to his studies on pre-20th century nomadic populations in central Asia. The relevant documents comprise a period that ended nearly a century before the revolution that gave rise to the Islamic Republic, but this did not stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from asserting, without evidence, that Wang had gathered documents for the purpose of sharing them with the US government.
In an article published in the Washington Post, Wang’s former Princeton classmate, Teresa Davis, added that the research he managed to complete before his arrest actually painted a very positive image of Iranian history. “Wang saw an Iranian past defined by pluralism and political creativity,” she noted, contrasting this with a “conventional narrative of Iran as repressive and authoritarian.” But this may actually shed light on IRGC motivations that go beyond Wang’s US citizenships. That is to say, even information that has no direct bearing on the Islamic Republic could be seen as a threat to state propaganda, which emphasizes a Persian Islamist national identity, to the exclusion of both ethnic and religious minorities.
Nonetheless, virtually all Western media coverage of Wang’s arrest agrees that the central motivating factor for arresting authorities is his citizenship. Hua Qu wife agrees, and has accordingly repeated the “hostage” label in discussing her husband’s case.
In the case of Iran, prisoner release presumably falls under the category of things the White House hopes to accomplish by maintaining “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime. However, this strategy naturally interferes with traditional diplomatic approaches to such issues, and some advocates for the hostages, including Wang’s wife, have expressed concern that the president may not be giving as much attention to their cases as to those of other Americans.
In the case of the rapper A$AP Rocky who was arrested after a fight in Sweden, the US State Department sent its hostage envoy Robert O’Brien to urge his release. But last week, the Trump administration further decreased prospects for diplomatic contact between the US and Iran when it imposed sanctions on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after having already limited his travel when he visited New York for a session at the United Nations. This move was explained in terms of Zarif’s alleged propaganda role, but the White House insisted that it would not affect the prospect for talks between higher-level officials.
President Trump has offered on a number of occasions to hold unconditional talks with President Hassan Rouhani or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but these offers have so far been rejected out of hand. Still, the administration remains confident that economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation will succeed in compelling the Iranians to come back to the negotiating table and discuss American demands regarding the country’s nuclear program, its regional interventionism, and other matters such as the regime’s treatment of Western nationals.
In fact, in a tweet on Thursday, Trump restated his belief that Iran already “wants desperately to talk to the US” because of the “serious financial trouble” that has been exacerbated by American sanctions. He went on to blame “mixed signals” from the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron for giving Tehran the impression that there may be another pathway for escape from its current crisis, which does not involve seriously altering its behaviors or giving up the perceived leverage from hostage-taking.
The release of Nizar Zakka may be viewed by some as a sign of the regime’s underlying willingness to change these behaviors if it means relief from some of the US pressure. But rather than being publicly directed to the US, that gesture was explained as a reaction to appeals from Hezbollah, which holds considerable influence over Zakka’s country of origin, Lebanon. This may in turn explain why the release was largely met with public silence by the Trump administration.
And this is not the only Iranian move to pass unnoticed despite its potential to signal a willingness to negotiate. On Tuesday, Al-Monitor observed that President Rouhani had “eased the conditions” for prospective talks between his government and its Western adversaries. Initially, Tehran said that there would be not such talks unless the US removed sanctions and re-joined the nuclear deal. But now Rouhani has said that the suspension of sanctions should happen “regardless of whether they want to return to the deal or not, which is up to them.” This is a modest change in the regime’s demands, but it still might help to justify the White House’s official position that Tehran is nearing capitulation to the effects of economic pressure.
On the other hand, it is not clear that this will provide much comfort to the American hostages or their advocates, especially in light of the fact that Iran’s judiciary has been described a shifting further into hardline territory, with implications for political prisoners and the domestic population as a whole.
One of the clearest signs of this shift was the March appointment of Ebrahim Raisi as the new judiciary chief. Raisi had challenged Rouhani for the presidency in 2017 but had been soundly defeated, partly on account of his record as one of the regime’s most notorious human rights abusers. Yet his subsequent promotion has fueled speculation that regardless of electoral defeat, he is being positioned to succeed Khamenei as the regime’s Supreme Leader.
This is made all the more likely by Raisi’s own position on powerful bodies like the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, alongside other hardliners like Ahmad Jannati, who was described in a recent article at The Hill as Iran’s “kingmaker.” In those roles, the hardline clerics have rejected countless candidates for high office, making Iranian politics into a “closed system” that excludes any real change. For this reason, The Hill recommended that Trump administration extend sanctions to Jannati and others, so as to “name and shame” those most responsible for the failure of moderation over the past 40 years.
Such moves might carry danger of additional backlash from regime authorities, some of which could be directed at existing hostages and other Western nationals within the Islamic Republic. But few advocates for those hostages have taken explicit positions on the issue of sanctions for Iranian officials or the regime as a whole. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s optimism surrounding its blacklisting of Rouhani is likely to extend to others who have not yet been directly targeted.
One question that arises from this situation is whether the Trump administration is so committed to “maximum pressure” that it is willing to bet on Tehran throwing in the towel before its most hardline elements can take out their frustration on American citizens or any other innocent victims.