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Iran Sentences Graduate Student Accused of Spying to 10 Years

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student at Princeton, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison while working in Iran on his dissertation.
Image: Xiyue Wang
Xiyue WangCourtesy Princeton University

A Chinese-American graduate student has been sentenced to 10 years in prison by an Iranian court after being arrested last year and accused of espionage.

Xiyue Wang, a fourth-year doctoral student of history at Princeton University, was in Iran last summer doing scholarly research for his dissertation when he was taken into custody, according to a news release from the university. His field of research is late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history.

Xiyue WangCourtesy Princeton University

Wang, 37, was accused of “spying under the cover of research,” Mizan Online News Agency, the Iranian judiciary’s news service, reported, according to Reuters.

“The person, who was gathering information and was directly guided by America, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the sentence can be appealed,” spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei said on state television, according to Reuters.

A State Department official told NBC News in an email that it was aware of reports about Wang, a naturalized United States citizen reportedly born in China.

“For privacy reasons, we are not going to detail efforts in specific consular cases,” the official said.

Princeton University said it was “very distressed” about the charges against Wang, as well as his conviction and sentence.

“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,” a statement from the school reads. “In the interim, the university will continue to do everything it can to be supportive of Mr. Wang and his family.”

Citing Mizan Online, the Associated Press reported that Iranian authorities arrested Wang in 2016 and accused him of providing confidential information about Iran to the State Department, Princeton's Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the British Institute of Persian Studies.

Mizan Online said Wang allegedly scanned thousands of pages of digital documents, paid thousands of dollars to gain access to archives, and requested access to parts of Tehran libraries that were confidential, according to the AP.

Stephen Kotkin, a Princeton professor serving as Wang’s doctoral adviser, was unavailable for comment. But in remarks Princeton University provided to NBC News, Kotkin called Wang a remarkable scholar.

“Wang is a man of boundless intellectual curiosity and uncommon diligence, an unfailingly polite, warm, and wonderful person, a joy to be around,” Kotkin said. “He is exactly the kind of person an advisor hopes for.”

The professor said the documents Wang read and collected were at least 100 years old.

“It is of course common for researchers traveling to multiple sites of field work to photocopy or scan documents they do not have time to go through fully while in country, in order to move on to their next place of research,” Kotkin said. “It is also common, and indeed a sign of achievement, to develop wide contacts with research institutions and scholars around the world and in Iran who work on related subjects.”

Describing Wang as “linguistically gifted,” Kotkin said the native Chinese speaker is also able to use Persian, Russian, and Pashto.

“Not himself a Muslim, he has developed a deep interest in and affection for predominantly Muslim communities,” Kotkin said. “He has spoken to me often of his delight at the depth and refinement of Iranian civilization.”

The U.S. does not maintain consular or diplomatic relations with Iran, and its ability to help U.S. citizens there in the event of an emergency is extremely limited, according to a State Department travel warning.

The State Department Monday called for U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran to be immediately released.

It also urged American citizens, especially dual nationals, to read the government’s latest travel warning if they’re considering heading to the country.

“The safety and security of U.S. citizens remains a top priority,” the State Department official said. “We continue to use all the means at our disposal to advocate for U.S. citizens who need our assistance overseas especially for the release of any unjustly detained U.S. citizens held overseas.”

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