Ambassador of the United States of America to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Edward T. McMullen, Jr. greets Xiyue Wang after his release from Iran on Dec. 7, 2019. (State Department photo)

Freed Hostage’s Family Elated, Other Hostages’ Families ‘Devastated’ After U.S.-Iran Swap

The family of America’s longest-held hostage said the prisoner swap that finally freed a Princeton grad student from Iran’s infamous Evin prison was a welcome yet “bittersweet” development.

Iran arrested U.S. citizen Xiyue Wang, 38, in August 2016 for scanning historical documents related to his Ph.D. research and sentenced him to 10 years. The University of Washington graduate has a young son with his wife, Hua Qu, who has been laboring intensively for Xiyue’s release.

Wang was released Friday and boarded a Swiss government plane to Zurich, where he was met by Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran. In exchange, the United States released Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, who was flown to Zurich to meet Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and arrived in Tehran on Saturday. Soleimani was arrested in Chicago last year and accused of violating sanctions by exporting biological materials to Iran without authorization.

“Our family is complete once again,” Hua Qu said in a statement. “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. We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”

On Monday, Zarif tweeted, “After getting our hostage back this week, fully ready for comprehensive prisoner exchange. The ball is in the US’ court.”

Replied the family of Bob Levinson: “We are hopeful that when you say comprehensive that this means you are finally ready to send Bob Levinson home.”

Added Nizar Zakka, a U.S. resident and D.C. contractor held by Iran for nearly four years, “Mr Zarif, free the hostages @FreeTheNamazis .. and remember if you are really ready for a swap start by clearing the case of @HelpBobLevinson. Simple.”

Bob Levinson, who served six years with the DEA and 22 at the FBI before his retirement, disappeared on Kish Island, a visa-free zone in Iran, on March 9, 2007. He had been working as a private investigator after his retirement.

The last video proof-of-life was received by the Levinson family in 2010, and the last photos in 2011; he would now be 71 years old. The FBI announced a $1 million reward for Levinson’s return in 2012 and upped that amount to $5 million in 2015. Last month, the State Department’s Rewards for Justice announced a new $20 million reward for information leading to the safe location, recovery, and return of the former FBI agent.

“We welcome the release of Xiyue Wang and send our best wishes to him, his wife, Hua Qu and their young son, who will finally get to see his father again. This is a day they have long hoped for, but this news is bittersweet for our family,” the Levinson family said in a statement Saturday. “Robert Levinson, our husband and father, has been held hostage for nearly 13 years – longer than any other American. We can’t help but be extremely disappointed that, despite all its efforts, the United States government was unable to secure his release as well, especially after such a painful week for our family.”

“Iranian authorities continue to play a cruel game with our father’s life, and with our family,” they added. “But the world knows the truth, and Iranian leadership must come clean. It is time for Iran to send Bob Levinson home, so he can live the rest of his life in peace. We look forward to when that day will come.”

Other U.S. hostages languishing in Iran include Siamak Namazi, a U.S. citizen and businessman who was seized in October 2015 on a visit to Tehran; his father, Baquer Namazi, also a U.S. citizen, was trying to secure his son’s release when he was seized in Tehran in February 2016. The pair were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “spying and cooperating with the U.S. government against Iran.”

“I am absolutely thrilled for Xiyue Wang and his family and the end of this horrific nightmare for them,” Babak Namazi, brother of Siamak and son of Baquer, said in a statement Saturday. “At the same time, I am beyond devastated that a second President has left my ailing father Baquer Namazi and brother Siamak Namazi behind as American hostages in Iran in a second swap deal.”

“I hope, pray, and expect that this is not a one-time trade but the beginning of an expedited process that will bring my family home soon,” he added.

Iran also seized art gallery owner Karan Vafadari in July 2016 by first detaining his Iranian wife at the airport and directing her to call and summon him there. They lobbed various vice charges at the Zoroastrian before he was sentenced to 27 years and 124 lashes for “collusion in plots against national security” and other charges. He said in a letter more than a year ago that the IRGC tried to force his wife “to say I was a member of the Mossad and the CIA… so they could hang me.”

In January 2018, Morad Tahbaz, a Connecticut conservationist, was arrested along with other current and former staffers of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. A Canadian among the arrested, Kavous Seyed-Emam, died in custody 17 days into his interrogation and detention; Iran claims he committed suicide, which his family disputes. Iran claims the trap cameras used to film wildlife were spying on the country’s missile program.

Last month, Tahbaz received a 10-year sentence for “contacts with the U.S. enemy state.”

Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran, was detained in July and sentenced last month to a decade behind bars. He had a melanoma recently removed and his family says his health is deteriorating.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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