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.”


Pompeo begins Greece talks to calm eastern Mediterranean tensions

Updated 42 min 55 sec ago

Pompeo begins Greece talks to calm eastern Mediterranean tensions

  • Pompeo began his two-day visit by meeting Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Thessaloniki

ATHENS: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began talks on Monday in Greece to de-escalate tension in the eastern Mediterranean and boost tentative steps at dialogue between Athens and Ankara.
Pompeo began his two-day visit by meeting Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Thessaloniki. Neither side has released a statement.
“Thrilled to be back in Greece, a vital US partner with whom we share a common strategic vision,” the secretary of state tweeted on Monday.
“The strength of our bilateral relationship is at an all-time high, and I’m looking forward to a productive visit.”
Ahead of the trip, a senior US official said Washington was keen to tamp down the tension, reduce the likelihood of “accidents or incidents” and for Greece and Turkey to complete an agreement.
The two NATO members are at loggerheads over energy exploration in disputed waters after Ankara stepped up hydrocarbon research in the sea.
The row has roped in other European powers, raising concern about a wider escalation.
But last week Athens and Ankara said they were ready to start talks.
“Let’s meet, let’s talk and let’s seek a mutually acceptable solution. Let’s give diplomacy a chance,” Mitsotakis said on Friday to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an address to the virtual UN General Assembly.
Pompeo will fly to the Greek island of Crete on Tuesday and tour the NATO naval base of Souda Bay.
Mitsotakis – who is hosting Pompeo at his family home on Crete – wants closer military ties with the US.
The secretary of state signed defense agreement last October allowing US forces a broader use of Greek military facilities.
A key element of the October deal was the northern Greek port of Alexandroupolis, a Balkans and Black Sea gateway of strategic value to the US navy and NATO.
The US has been granted priority status to the port after paying roughly $2.3 million to remove a sunken dredging barge that had blocked part of the harbor since 2010.
At the time, Greek officials said the Pentagon was expected to invest over $14 million on the Greek air base of Larissa and around six million euros at Marathi, part of the Souda base.
The visit to Thessaloniki is also intended as a sign to the Balkans on American willingness to invest in the region, the State Department said.
Pompeo will sign a bilateral science and technology agreement, and host an energy sector gathering of business leaders.
Pompeo’s tour later in the week also includes stops in Italy, the Vatican and Croatia.
In Rome, the secretary of state will discuss efforts by the Trump administration to deter its European allies from using equipment by Chinese manufacturer Huawei in developing their 5G networks.
The US accuses Huawei of being a tool for Chinese espionage.
Pompeo is also scheduled to attend a meeting at the Vatican on religious freedom, his human rights priority. There, too, he will warn of China’s actions against minorities, including Muslims.