TEHRAN (Dispatches) — Iran and the U.S. conducted a prisoner exchange Saturday that saw an Iranian scientist held by America released for a Chinese-born U.S. citizen, marking a rare diplomatic breakthrough between after months of tensions.
In a trade conducted in Zurich, Switzerland, Iranian officials handed over Xiyue Wang, detained in Tehran since 2016, for scientist Massoud Soleimani, who had faced a federal trial in Georgia.
The exchange comes as Iran still faces draconian American sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif broke the news in his own tweet.
"Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly,” Zarif wrote. "Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government.”
President Donald Trump shortly after acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying the Chinese-American would be "returning to the United States.”
"We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.”
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran looks out for America’s interests in the country as the U.S. Embassy there has been closed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, accompanied the Iranian scientist Soleimani to Switzerland to make the exchange and would return with Wang, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be released.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency later reported that Soleimani was with Iranian officials in Switzerland. He was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours. Zarif later posted pictures of himself on Twitter with Soleimani in front of an Iranian government jet and later with the two talking on board.
Soleimani, a 49-year-old Iranian scientist, left Iran on sabbatical last year but was arrested upon arrival in Chicago and transferred to prison in Atlanta, Georgia for unspecified reasons.
Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for "infiltrating” the country and sending confidential material abroad.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court tried Wang. That court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government.
Soleimani — who works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine — was arrested by U.S. authorities on charges he had violated trade sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran. He and his lawyers maintain his innocence, saying he seized on a former student’s plans to travel from the U.S. 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.
His brother has said in interviews that the professor had been pressed to confess that the purchase of the growth hormones had been made with an intent to "circumvent the American sanctions” against Iran.
U.S. authorities said such a confession
would pave the way for a plea bargain, but Soleimani refused to accept the offer.
Tensions have been high between Iran and the U.S. since Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. In the time since, the U.S. has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Zarif in September said in an interview with NPR that he had pushed for an exchange of Wang for Soleimani.
"I have offered to exchange them, because as foreign minister I cannot go to our court and simply tell them, ‘Release this man,’” Zarif said then. "I can go to the court and tell them, ‘I can exchange this man for an Iranian,’ and then … have a legal standing in the court.”
However, the exchange is unlikely to have a wider effect on Iranian-U.S. relations. Iran has accused the U.S. of being behind the mid-November violent riots over gasoline prices. Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei last month renewed a ban on any direct talks with the United States.
In June, Iran released Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident from Lebanon who had been arrested for spying. The U.S. 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 from the U.S. to Iran.