Academic Adviser Of Princeton Student Sentenced For Spying In Iran: 'Everything He Did Was Normal' : Parallels Iran says it has sentenced the Princeton student to 10 years for spying. He may have been caught up in a power struggle between hardliners and the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani.
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Academic Adviser Of U.S. Student Jailed In Iran: 'Everything He Did Was Normal'

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Academic Adviser Of U.S. Student Jailed In Iran: 'Everything He Did Was Normal'

Academic Adviser Of U.S. Student Jailed In Iran: 'Everything He Did Was Normal'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Iran says it has sentenced an American graduate student to 10 years in prison for spying for U.S. and British intelligence agencies. The Princeton student was in Iran doing research when he was arrested. NPR's Jackie Northam has the latest.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The 37-year-old Xiyue Wang was pursuing his Ph.D. in Eurasian history, studying local government in predominantly Muslim regions during the late 19th and early 20th century. Stephen Kotkin, Wang's adviser at Princeton, says it was an extremely ambitious thesis topic, but Wang came well-prepared.

STEPHEN KOTKIN: He had a tremendous background, life experiences, linguistic capabilities. And so he entered the program and sort of hit the ground running and developed his interests even more.

NORTHAM: Kotkin says it was the fieldwork stage of Wang's research that took him to Iran about a year ago. Before he left, Wang called upon scholars working and established in that field for information, whether it be in the U.S., the U.K., even Iran.

KOTKIN: Everything he did is normal. Absolutely everything he did is normal, standard practice for scholars in this region and elsewhere.

NORTHAM: Kotkin says when doing fieldwork, a researcher's time is limited, but the documentation is infinite.

KOTKIN: So you're hurrying, hurrying, hurrying to encompass all the documents that you can, sometimes photocopying and scanning and then trying to bring those out for further study.

NORTHAM: But Wang never got that opportunity. He was arrested 10 months ago. Princeton says it was working quietly to win his release. This weekend, the Mizan news agency, a mouthpiece for Iran's judiciary, broke the news of Wang's 10-year sentence. It said Wang was accused of gathering confidential articles intended for the U.S. State Department and Western academic institutions. Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says Wang may have had archives.

ALEX VATANKA: But classified archives dealing with matters going back to the 19th century would be a very different matter than, say, Iran's ongoing nuclear program.

NORTHAM: Wang is a U.S. citizen born in China. His arrest comes as several Iranian-Americans are already being held in jails in Iran. Vatanka says Wang could have got caught up in a nasty power struggle in Iran between hardliners and the more moderate government under President Hassan Rouhani. Two years ago, he signed a nuclear agreement with the U.S. and other nations to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the easing of crippling economic sanctions. Vatanka says Rouhani has been trying to bring in foreign investment and burnish Iran's image.

VATANKA: And when something like this happens, it just takes them back to the sort of images of Iran that they certainly don't think are helpful for the kind of future of the country that they'd like to build.

NORTHAM: Suzanne Maloney with the Brookings Institution says these sorts of arrests and prison sentences are a persistent risk in Iran, especially for individuals on their own, students and dual nationals.

SUZANNE MALONEY: There is often a temptation to look for some kind of logic here. I think that this particular case highlights the fact that the logic is simply the paranoia of the Islamic Republic, its judiciary and its security services in particular.

NORTHAM: The State Department issued a statement saying it's aware of the reports of Wang's incarceration and called for the release of all U.S. citizens held unjustly in Iran. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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