Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

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US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook greets Xiyue Wang in Zurich, Switzerland after he was released by iran in a prisoner swap. (AP)
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In this photo released on twitter account of Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif , Zarif, left, shakes hand with Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani prior to leaving Zurich, Switzerland for Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2019

Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

  • President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States”
  • Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018

TEHRAN: A Princeton scholar held for three years in Iran on widely criticized espionage charges was freed Saturday as part of a prisoner exchange that saw America release a detained Iranian scientist, a rare diplomatic breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions.
The trade on the tarmac of a Swiss airport saw Iranian officials hand over Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang for scientist Massoud Soleimani, who had faced a federal trial in Georgia over charges he violated sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran.
The swap, however, had clear limits. Crushing US sanctions on Iran blocking it from selling crude oil abroad remain in place, part of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign imposed following his unilateral withdraw from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers last year. Those sanctions in part fueled the anger seen in nationwide protests last month that Iranian security forces violently put down, unrest that reportedly killed over 200 people.
Meanwhile, Western detainees from the US and elsewhere remain held by Tehran, likely to be used as bargaining chips for future negotiations. At least two American families of detainees, while praising Wang’s release, questioned why their loved ones didn’t come home as well.
Wang’s release had been rumored over recent days. One lawyer involved in his case tweeted out a Bible verse about an angel freeing the apostle Peter just hours before Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif broke the news in his own tweet. He posted pictures of himself with Soleimani at the Zurich airport before quickly whisking him back to Tehran by jet.
Trump shortly after acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, thanking Switzerland for its help. The Swiss Embassy in Tehran looks out for America’s interests in the country as the US Embassy there has been closed since the 1979 student takeover and 444-day hostage crisis.
“Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation,” Trump later tweeted. “See, we can make a deal together!”
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, accompanied the Soleimani to Switzerland to make the exchange. He later posed for a photograph with Wang, who carried a folded American flag in his arms while wearing gray workout clothes.
Hook and Wang traveled to Landstuhl hospital near Ramstein Air Base in Germany where Wang likely will be examined by doctors for several days.
Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, released a statement saying “our family is complete once again.”
“Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she said. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”
Soleimani arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport with Zarif, where his wife and family wrapped garlands of yellow and purple carnations around his neck. He briefly spoke to journalists from state-run media, his voice shaking and a tear running down his face under a portrait of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for allegedly “infiltrating” the country and sending confidential material abroad. Wang was arrested in 2016 while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th- and early 20th-century Eurasian history, according to Princeton.
Wang’s family and Princeton strongly denied the claims. The United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said “there was no legal basis for the arrest and detention.”
Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Soleimani works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine. He and his lawyers maintained his innocence, saying he seized on a former student’s plans to travel from the US to Iran in September 2016 as a chance to get recombinant proteins used in his research for a fraction of the price he’d pay at home.
Zarif in September said in an interview with NPR that he had pushed for an exchange of Wang for Soleimani. Speaking in Tehran on Saturday night, Zarif referred to Wang as a “spy” who received his release due to “Islamic mercy.”
It remains unclear whether this exchange will have a wider effect on Iranian-US relations. Iran has accused the US without evidence of being behind the mid-November protests over gasoline prices. The demonstrations and the crackdown reportedly killed at least 208 people, though Iran has refused to release nationwide statistics over the unrest.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out direct talks between the nations.
A US official, speaking to journalists on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations with Iran, suggested the maximum pressure campaign targeting Tehran would continue.
“There’s been absolutely no payment of cash or lifting of sanctions or any sort of concessions or ransom in any of these cases, and certainly not with respect to Mr. Wang,” the official said.
There had been signs a swap could be coming. In June, Iran released Nizar Zakka, a US permanent resident from Lebanon who advocated for Internet freedom and has done work for the US government. The US then deported Iranian Negar Ghodskani in September, who had been brought from Australia and later sentenced to time served for conspiracy to illegally export restricted technology to Iran.
Others held in Iran include US Navy veteran Michael White, who is serving a 10-year espionage sentence, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian with US and British citizenship also initially sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Also in Iran are 83-year-old Baquer Namazi and his son, Siamak Namazi, dual Iranian-American nationals facing 10-year sentences after they were convicted of collaborating with a hostile power. Baquer Namazi now is on a prison furlough, said Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman at Iran’s mission to the United Nations. However, the Namazis say he remains unable to leave Iran.
Babak Namazi, Baquer’s son and Siamak’s brother, issued a statement saying he was “beyond devastated that a second president” had left the two behind. An earlier 2016 prisoner swap as the nuclear deal took effect saw prisoners including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian released but not the Namazis.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, but his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
“We can’t help but be extremely disappointed that, despite all its efforts, the United States government was unable to secure his release, especially after such a painful week for our family,” the Levinson family said in a statement. “Iranian authorities continue to play a cruel game with our father’s life, and with our family. But the world knows the truth, and Iranian leadership must come clean.”

Daesh tries to stage comeback amid rising US-Iran tensions

Updated 8 min 16 sec ago

Daesh tries to stage comeback amid rising US-Iran tensions

  • American troops in Iraq had to pause their operations against Daesh for nearly two weeks amid the tensions

BEIRUT: The Daesh group’s self-styled “caliphate” across parts of Iraq and Syria seemed largely defeated last year, with the loss of its territory, the killing of its founder in a US raid and an unprecedented crackdown on its social media propaganda machine.

But tensions between the US and Iran and the resulting clash over the US military presence in the region provide a comeback opportunity for the extremist group, whose remnants have been gradually building up a guerrilla campaign over the past year, experts say.

American troops in Iraq had to pause their operations against Daesh for nearly two weeks amid the tensions. From the other side, Iranian-backed Iraqi militiamen who once focused on fighting the militants have turned their attention to evicting US troops from the Middle East.

In the meantime, Daesh group sleeper cells intensified ambushes in Iraq and Syria in the past few weeks, killing and wounding dozens of their opponents in both countries. Activists and residents say the attacks have intensified since the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a Jan. 3 drone strike at Baghdad’s airport.

It is not clear whether the uptick is related to the repercussions that followed from the strike, and it is possible some of the attacks had been planned before Soleimani’s killing. US officials deny seeing any particular increase in Daesh activities. “They haven’t taken advantage of it, as far as we can see,” said James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting Daesh.


• On Jan. 14, Daesh launched a cross border attack from Syria into Iraq, killing an Iraqi officer.

• A day later, Daesh attacked Iraqi force in Salaheddine, killing two soldiers and wounding five.

• Two days later, an Iraqi intelligence major was killed in a car bomb north of Baghdad.

Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for Syria’s US-backed Kurdish-led force, said the intensification of Daesh attacks began even earlier, since October, when Turkey began a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Still, the militants clearly gained at least temporary breathing room as the killing of Soleimani, along with a senior Iraqi militia leader, brought Iran and the US to the brink of all-out war and outraged Iraqis, who considered the strike a flagrant breach of sovereignty.

On Jan. 5, Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of the 5,200 US troops from the country who have been there since 2014 on a mission to train Iraqi forces and assist in the fight against Daesh. The US-led coalition then put the fight against Daesh on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases. It said last week that it had resumed those operations after a 10-day halt.

“This tension will for sure help Daesh, as all forces fighting it become busy with other matters,” warned Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on terror groups.

Among other things, he said Iran-US tensions help give Daesh the opportunity to restructure as its new leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi, strengthens his grip. Al-Qurayshi was announced in the post after longtime leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed by a US raid in Syria in October.

“The day the American-Iranian clash began, Daesh started intensifying its attacks,” said Rami Aburrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.

On Jan. 14, Daesh launched a cross-border attack from Syria into Iraq, killing an Iraqi officer. A day later, Daesh fighters attacked an Iraqi force in the central Salaheddine region, killing two soldiers and wounding five. Two days later, an Iraqi intelligence major was killed in a car bomb north of Baghdad.

One of the deadliest attacks occurred in Syria on Jan. 14, when Daesh fighters stole some 2,000 cattle from a village near the eastern town of Mayadeen. One of the four shepherds that own the cattle informed authorities, and a Syrian regime force was sent to the area, where they were met by Daesh fire.

As the forces returned to their base, Daesh gunmen laid an ambush, killing 11 troops and pro-regime fighters as well as two shepherds.

Daesh published photos showing bodies of soldiers said to have been killed in the attack, along with a destroyed armored vehicle and an overturned truck.

On the same day, seven shepherds were found shot dead west of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. On Jan. 4, 21 shepherds were found shot in the back of their heads, their hands were tied behind their backs.

Dozens of members of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian democratic Forces have been killed over the past months in attacks claimed by Daesh as well.

With the painful strikes, Daesh is “taking advantage to boost its influence” and send a message to their supporters that they are still strong, said Omar Abu Laila, an activist from Deir Ezzor now based in Europe.

“Some civilians don’t dare leave their homes after sunset because of fear of Daesh,” Abu Laila said.

The group is also trying to restore its presence on social media and the Internet — a key component to its ability to raise financial support from abroad and recruit new fighters.

Daesh members and supporters have for years sown fear and projected power with the grisly videos they released on social media showing beheadings, amputations and victims burned to death or thrown from buildings.

In recent weeks, European authorities, coordinated by Europol, have shut down thousands of Daesh propaganda platforms and communication channels in an unprecedented crackdown. In particular, the crackdown forced Daesh’s news agency and other channels off the Telegram text messaging system, the group’s primary outlet since 2015.

“The Europol campaign of November had a massive impact on Daesh support networks on Telegram,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

Since then, the extremists have shifted to other messaging platforms including the Russia-based TamTam, Canada-based Hoop Messenger and BCM Messenger. They also tried to get back on Twitter using hacked accounts, Amarasingam said.

So far, those efforts have not been very successful as international authorities work to chase them down on those outlets as well.

“None of this is really matching the presence they had on Telegram from 2015 onwards,” Amarasingam said.