Via Financial Times

Iran has released a Princeton University graduate student who was imprisoned on espionage charges in exchange for an Iranian scientist held in the US for allegedly violating sanctions.

Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist who had been detained for more than a year, was traded for Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born naturalised American who was serving a 10-year prison sentence in Tehran after being arrested in 2016.

Donald Trump welcomed the release of Mr Wang, who he said had been held “under the pretence of espionage”.

Iran said Mr Soleimani was handed over to its officials in Zurich after a year of US “hostage-taking” and “illegal imprisonment”.

US and Iranian officials said the swap was conducted with the help of Switzerland, which serves as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran because the two nations do not have formal diplomatic relations.

The Iranian foreign ministry said Mr Wang was handed over to Swiss officials after his release was approved by the country’s highest security body, the Supreme National Security Council, and agreed by the judiciary based on “Islamic mercy”. Brian Hook, the US state department official in charge of Iran policy, met Mr Wang in Zurich after he was released and flown back on a Swiss aircraft.

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. Iran and the U.S. conducted a prisoner exchange Saturday that saw a detained Princeton scholar released for an Iranian scientist held by America, marking a rare diplomatic breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions. (Javad Zarif twitter account via AP)
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, shakes hand with Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian haematologist who had been detained in the US for more than a year for allegedly violating sanctions © AP

Mr Soleimani, who was last year convicted of breaching US sanctions on Iran, had been due to appear in a US court on December 11. But a senior American administration official said the US had dropped all the charges against as part of the swap, which he described as a “very, very good deal for the United States”.

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“I am hopeful that the release of Mr Wang is a sign that the Iranians are realising that the practice of hostage-taking diplomacy really should come to an end,” the US official added.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who proposed a swap in April, tweeted that he was glad that both men “will be joining their families shortly” and also expressed his thanks to the Swiss government. Mr Trump also thanked Switzerland.

The prisoner swap comes as tension remains high between Washington and Tehran, particularly as Iran faces increasingly economic hardship after Mr Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed tough sanctions.

The US official stressed that Washington had not provided any money, or eased sanctions, to secure the release of Mr Wang, 38. He said that while Mr Trump was willing to meet the Iranians “without any preconditions”, the US would continue the “maximum pressure campaign” that is inflicting severe economic pain on Tehran.

Pointing to the recent protests in Iran that were brutally put down by the authorities, the US official said he hoped the release of Mr Wang was a sign that Iran was prepared to come to the table to discuss the nuclear issue and other areas.

Qu Hua, Mr Wang’s wife, welcomed the return of her husband, saying their family was “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,” Ms Qu said. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”

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