As part of a “maximum pressure campaign,” Mr. Trump has targeted the country with severe economic sanctions. The president, who withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, has said he hopes to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program and regional aggression. On Wednesday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, reiterated that Iran would be prepared to meet with the parties to the nuclear deal, including the United States, “whenever the U.S. lifts the unfair sanctions.”
Trump administration officials believe Iran may have released Mr. Wang in order to soften its image and deflect attention from a recent brutal crackdown on mass domestic protests. American officials believe the unrest has left hundreds dead and as many as 7,000 imprisoned, drawing condemnation from around the world.
Mr. Hook, who flew to Zurich overnight on an American military jet to meet Mr. Wang on Saturday, briefed reporters on Thursday at the State Department on the crackdown, denouncing “the atrocities the Iranian regime has committed against its own people.”
But it was Mr. Hook, working through Swiss intermediaries who often serve as a diplomatic channel between Washington and Tehran, who negotiated the prisoner exchange.
Mr. Hook has had no direct contact with Iranian officials since a March 2018 meeting in Vienna shortly before Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement. In Vienna, Mr. Hook insisted to Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, that Mr. Wang’s transparent activities made clear he was no covert operative. Mr. Araghchi countered that perhaps Mr. Wang had simply not been trained well, according to a senior United States official.
Mr. Wang, who has a wife and a young son, was a student of late-19th- and early-20th-century Eurasian history, according to a Princeton University website. Backed by university funding, he went to Iran in 2016 to study Farsi and conduct archival research for his doctoral dissertation.
Before his visit, Mr. Wang explained in writing his research plan to the Iranian interest section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, which issued his visa. “He was not involved in any political activities or social activism,” the university says.