Despite the clear injustice of his imprisonment, Wang’s case has not received the widespread public support it merits. Many liberals fear that any critique of Iran will play into the belligerent rhetoric of the Trump administration, which has escalated hostilities between the nations. At the same time, both academics and the general public have questioned why Wang went to Iran in the first place, given the obvious risks.
In fact, the response to both concerns underscores the critical importance of research such as Wang’s to both the past and the present.
Wang studies the nomadic populations of the vast, arid territory connecting contemporary Central Asia, Russia, Iran, western China and Mongolia. His dissertation explores the transformation of nomadic life in the late 19th century, when modern states began to form over a previously fluid set of identities, economies and boundaries. Versions of this story played out across the globe in the same period, from the American West to Australia. It is still present today in painful debates over the status of minorities in these regions.
A polyglot — he speaks 10 languages — and a voracious learner, Wang is better equipped than nearly anyone for this work. Even so, his project was ambitious. Though the broad contours of historical events are available to anyone with an Internet browser, the experiences of those who do not write their own histories are often only accessible through laborious archival excavation. The documents that Wang needed were held in the archives of the two most important regional powers of the era, Russia and Iran, and would require arduous work to access.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, it has been difficult for non-Iranian scholars to conduct research in the country’s rich archives. But in 2015, after the United States and Iran signed the Iran nuclear deal, conditions appeared more auspicious for academic exchange between the two countries. Wang applied for a visa to study Farsi and to conduct preliminary archival research in Tehran. He received word in November 2015 that his application had been granted.
Even then, Wang was very careful. He spoke extensively to scholars at Princeton who assured him that the new agreement, and his low profile, would protect him. In January 2016, he traveled to Tehran on a student visa and returned home without incident. When he decided to go again, representatives of the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Washington were encouraging, further adding to the sense that the tide had turned.
In retrospect, the advice Wang received was naive. The Foreign Ministry, previously at the forefront of the nuclear negotiations, represented only one among the multiple factions that dominate Iranian politics. Other groups had opposed the deal, and many reacted with particular animosity to the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose ties to the United States and prominent role in the negotiations are criticized by rival groups within Iran. It was one such faction within the Intelligence Ministry that arrested and imprisoned Wang.
Still, the choice to conduct research in a country so long misunderstood and stigmatized is a laudable one. By the time of his arrest, Wang had begun to uncover a remarkable story: In the late 19th century, when many states were doing their utmost to exterminate indigenous communities, Iran had developed a sensitive and flexible system for governing its diverse population. Contrary to the conventional narrative of Iran as repressive and authoritarian, Wang saw an Iranian past defined by pluralism and political creativity. Such unexpected insights are perhaps the most important gift historians such as Wang can offer to a present governed by prejudice and polarization.
We should all work tirelessly for Wang’s release. There is no zero-sum equation between fighting to free an innocent researcher in an Iranian prison and advocating for productive diplomatic relations with Iran. Indeed, if diplomacy and sanity are to succeed, we will need to protect the work of researchers such as Wang, who systematically challenge the idea of a foundational clash between East and West, Islam and Christianity, or “backward” and “modern” forms of political organization. To support Wang is to cast our lot in favor of historical nuance and humanity against the hard-liners — both abroad and in our midst.