Iran Releases U.S. Student Held Since 2016 in Prisoner Swap

Arsalan Shahla and Mario Parker

(Bloomberg) -- Iran released the Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang on Saturday as part of a prisoner swap, U.S. officials said. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed that the U.S. freed Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani.

Soleimani was “delivered to Iranian officials in Switzerland,” Iran’s foreign ministry said on its Telegram channel. Zarif later tweeted photos of himself with his countryman.

A senior U.S. administration official said Wang was met in Switzerland by Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative to Iran. Yang will undergo a medical evaluation in Germany before heading back to the U.S.

The Princeton University scholar may visit President Donald Trump at the White House after his return but nothing has been arranged so far, the official said.

The prisoner swap comes as diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran remain fraught. President Hassan Rouhani’s government is under increasing pressure from U.S. sanctions that have hammered the Islamic Republic’s economy. More than 1,000 people may have been killed by government forces in Iran during a crackdown on protests in recent weeks.

“Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016,” Trump said in a statement on Saturday. “Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas.”

Soleimani, arrested at a Chicago airport in 2018 and convicted on charges of violating trade sanctions, had been expected to be freed from prison as early as next month under a plea agreement, the New York Times reported, citing two senior U.S. officials it didn’t identify.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo highlighted Iran’s “constructive” stance on the matter in a Twitter post.

The senior administration official said the U.S. is focused on bringing home other Americans it says are wrongfully held abroad using whatever tools it has, adding that Saturday’s release could create fresh momentum.

In the case of Iran, that includes Robert Levinson, the official said. Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared there in 2007, was reportedly on a mission for the CIA.

No payment of cash, lifting of sanctions or other concessions were proposed as part of Wang’s release, the official added.

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement posted on Twitter that the university’s community “is overjoyed that Xiyue Wang can finally return home to his wife and young son, and we look forward to welcoming him back to campus.” He is a fourth-year graduate student in the history department, according to the university.

The senior administration official said Saturday that Trump remains prepared to meet with Iranian officials with no preconditions.

(Updates with U.S. official from third paragraph.)

--With assistance from Katerina Petroff.

To contact the reporters on this story: Arsalan Shahla in Tehran at ashahla@bloomberg.net;Mario Parker in Washington at mparker22@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Christopher Kingdon at ckingdon@bloomberg.net, Sara Marley, James Amott

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