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The Fury of a Former Iran Hostage

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American who was detained by Iran from 2016 to 2019, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., January 12, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Reuters Pool)

At The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has an extraordinary interview with Xiyue Wang, the American academic who was held hostage by the Iranian regime for 40 months. Wang had been doing archival research in Tehran when he was taken into custody for allegedly spying on behalf of the U.S. government.

Since his time in captivity, Wang, a former proponent of engagement with Iran, has taken the side of those who advocate a tougher policy — hence, “The Accidental Hard-Liner,” the title of Wood’s piece. With his vociferous pushback against the Biden administration’s Iran policy, he’s become a prominent voice among certain hawkish foreign-policy circles on Twitter.

Wood describes how Wang came to this view over the course of his lengthy imprisonment in the country:

His captors’ complete indifference to his actual guilt or innocence rapidly revealed itself. They told him, matter-of-factly, that he was being kept solely for purposes of exchange. The regime that held him, Wang came to feel, had no intention of altering its behavior if the United States made concessions: This was its true self, and not the product of American aggression. He said he once thought that the dreadful state of Iran was “all because of something we did wrong to them,” and that a thawing of ties would empower Iranian moderates. But that view relied on what he called a “mirage” of moderation within the Iranian government. “I slowly saw: They don’t want to be our friends. They don’t want to reconcile.” In prison he watched a great deal of state propaganda. “They say it clearly,” he told me. “They want us as an enemy, because that is the reason for their existence.” To hope that Iran will stop behaving like an enemy is to hope that it will suddenly decide not to exist anymore.

Wang also told Wood about an epiphany he had concerning those who seem to have a soft spot for the Islamic Republic:

He reflected on his months in prison but also on his months as a free man in Tehran, when he spent more time among Iranians than nearly any other American who is not a dual national. During that period, he said he met no regime supporters. “But to my surprise, when I came back to the United States, there were many sympathizers with the regime,” he said. These were in some cases people who disliked America — “people who thought because Iran is anti-American, there must be some redeemability there,” Wang told me. “Can you imagine how furious this makes me, every single day?”

When it comes to confronting U.S. adversaries, it’s often people like Wang, who have seen such regimes up close, who understand why proponents of appeasement are willfully blind to their true nature.

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