Non-Crime and Punishment

Like many students working on Iran, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the recent announcement that Iran had convicted an American PhD student of espionage. The student, Xiyue Wang of Princeton University (my alma mater), was arrested in Iran last August but his case only became known publicly following the announcement of his conviction by the Iranian judiciary this past weekend. Wang has been sentenced to ten years.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Wang is no spy. His research in Iran apparently consisted of digitally archiving some 4500 documents, presumably concerning the Qajar period (late 18th to early 20th century Iran), his intended thesis topic. In typically creative Iranian linguistic fashion, the judiciary claimed that Wang had “spider web” connections to American and British intelligence services, but offered no specifics or evidence. Even without all the facts, it seems pretty obvious that this was a bogus charge created by conservative political factions for the purpose of undermining Rouhani rather than a response to an actual national security threat.

Whenever an American gets detained or imprisoned in Iran, there are immediate comparisons to other Americans who have been detained there. Most will recall the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who along with his wife was jailed in Iran on specious espionage charges for a year and a half from July 2014 to January 2016. Other Americans, including Baquer and Siamak Namazi, remain in Iranian custody.

What sets Wang’s case apart from those of most Americans detained in Iran is that he is not an Iranian-American dual citizen. Iran does not recognize dual nationality, which officials claim gives them the authority to arrest and detain Iranian-Americans who typically travel to Iran on their Iranian passports. This allows Iran to deny them access to basic consular and diplomatic services while in custody. Even without an American diplomatic presence in Iran, this legal construct gives Iran total authority over their cases and makes negotiating their release considerably more difficult.

A better parallel for Wang’s situation might be the case of Matthew Trevithick, an American student who was detained in Iran for 41 days from December 2015 to January 2016. I find Trevithick’s case interesting because his life experience prior to his detention in some ways mirrors my own. After studying international relations, he set out to explore several less understood parts of the world, including parts the Arab world and Afghanistan. Like me, he eventually became interested in Iran and visited the country on a tourist visa in 2010. Wanting to learn more, he applied to study Persian at the Dehkhoda Insitute in Tehran, one of the most well-known Persian language institutes in the country.

I, too, applied to study at Dehkhoda, but unlike Trevithick, my 2014 application received no response. After making some inquiries, I was told that it was virtually impossible for American students traveling on American passports to study in Iran, language or otherwise. Even after the landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 in 2015 — a week after which Trevithick says his visa came through — people I spoke to about studying in Iran were still telling me that it was not safe for Americans to do anything there outside of conventional tourism.

In an odd way, I’m somewhat jealous that they able to succeed where I failed in getting a visa. Obviously, I’m not envious of what subsequently happened to them, and I am no doubt relieved that in my more naive days I was never given the opportunity to put myself in that situation. Still, I’ve never found a good reason why Trevithick — or now, Wang — were able to acquire visas that have generally been unobtainable for the vast majority of American passport holders.

Once in Iran, both made some incredibly bad decisions that lead me to question how much they actually knew about the country they were there to study. If you know, for example, that the authorities are prone to accusing Americans of espionage for engaging in even the most basic activities of student life, perhaps it’s not a good idea to go there as a student. This is especially true for those who have connections to American or British institutions, which adds an additional layer of suspicion to even the most mundane activities.

This paranoid style of Iranian politics and internal security is nothing new. Iranian society has long been susceptible to a good conspiracy theory, dating back to before the Islamic Revolution. Anyone who has read the famous Iranian novel My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkad will note the way in which the conspiratorial pronouncements by the eponymous character about British infiltration resemble those of the Supreme Leader when discussing the United States and the West. Unjustified detentions and kangaroo court convictions based on specious allegations of spying have been chronicled by other writers for decades. In one such example, Roger Cooper, a British man who was held in Iran for over five years from 1985-1991, recalled in his autobiography, Death Plus Ten Years, the way the guards at Evin prison talked about Britain and the United States:

As I began to have conversations with some of them I heard extraordinary stories about England, clearly black propaganda spread by fanatics. Apart from AIDS being endemic, our drinking water was recycled sewage, and homosexual marriages were commonplace. The Queen, or possibly Mrs Thatcher (the two were sometimes confused), decided who the next President of the United States would be, because Americans were very weak in politics and the British were extremely clever.

I don’t mean to victim-blame here. Again, neither Trevithick nor Wang did anything explicitly wrong as students. I’m just surprised that neither of them — nor, for that matter, their friends or advisors  — seemed to consider what their presence in the country might look like to the Iranian authorities, or what the political climate in and outside of Iran might mean for their ability to study there. This was a costly oversight since it is ultimately those perceptions that matter more than reality.

In Iran, the truth won’t always set you free.

[UPDATE 7/21]

I forgot to mention in my post that Trevithick actually penned a Washington Post op-ed today in which he essentially says the same thing about keeping students out of Iran, although he blames the universities that are “recklessly” sending them there rather than the students themselves. It’s strange advice coming from someone who presumably obtained his visa and traveled there independently of any academic institution. But I guess a there was some lesson learned here. Better late than never, I suppose.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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