Top American officials say the U.S. is hopeful that the recent prisoner exchange will lead to a broader discussion on consular affairs between the U.S. and Iran.
In an interview with VOA on Wednesday, Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, recalled some of the emotional moments of witnessing the release of Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American detained in Iran, and said Wang will be “working with us and doing everything we can to get out people like Bob Levinson and then the Namazis and others.”
Wang was freed Saturday after being held in Iran since 2016 on spying charges, in return for the U.S. releasing Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani.
Hook said Wang is “in excellent condition” and is at Ramstein Air Force Base with his wife and son.
While the top U.S. envoy said the rare prisoner exchange between the two nations is “a good first step” toward more dialogue, he called Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s proposal via a tweet for “a comprehensive prisoner swap” not helpful.
“We don’t think it’s all that helpful for any sort of talking about prisoners in public. We just try to do this in quiet diplomacy and bring Americans back home,” Hook said.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
VOA: First, congratulations on bringing detained American home. You were there to witness the release of Xiyue Wang, the Princeton Ph.D. candidate. Could you please share with us your firsthand story and some of the most memorable moments?
Hook: It was a big day for American diplomacy, but it was an even bigger day for Xiyue Wang. And so the United States has been working on releasing all Americans who are detained in Iran for the last three years. We’ve been working to win their release. We’ve been trying to get a consular dialogue going with Iran so that we can get Americans out. And then about three or four weeks ago, we started getting some more positive signals from the Iranians, and then working through the Swiss, I’ve been working with the Swiss, was able to negotiate the release of Xiyue Wang. And so when we were in Zurich, it was a really powerful moment to welcome Xiyue back home and out of Iranian custody, out of Iranian prison.
He is a brave and amazing man. He is currently at Ramstein Air Force Base with his wife and son. They’re now reunited. And I think he’s getting great medical care there. He is in excellent condition. And he emerged from this, he’s very strong. He’s, I really admire his toughness and when he’s ready, after we get through I think just the period of just the medical evaluation and reuniting with his family, then he’ll be coming back to the United States.
VOA: What was his first ask when he met you?
Hook: He just said it’s great to be an American. Those were his first words. And it was a very emotional moment, very powerful. And I really admire him. And I know his wife, Hua, and she’s at Princeton. And she has been tireless in advocating for his release and I had met with her. We’ve spoken by phone a number of times.
Now, there are other families who also have loved ones in Iran who are, we are still trying to get out.
One of the things that Xiyue made very clear to me was he wants to get all of them out. And I know that he’ll be working with us and doing everything we can to get out people like Bob Levinson and the Namazis and others. And we work on it every day.
VOA: Xiyue Wang was born in Beijing. He’s now a U.S. citizen. His wife is a Chinese citizen. During the process, did the Chinese government provide any help or play any role in securing his release?
Hook: Not that I’m aware of. I’m not aware of any role that China played securing his release.
VOA: After the recent swap of Xiyue Wang and Soleimani, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran is fully ready for a comprehensive prisoner exchange. What is your take? How serious is the U.S. taking his pitch?
Hook: Foreign Minister Zarif unfortunately has a long history of creating a sense of false hope with American families. On a regular basis, he says things that we then follow up and test the offer, and then we discovered that there is no offer.
Now we were able to get a successful exchange this time, and it was a fair negotiation. So we’re very pleased with the outcome. We don’t conduct trying to get our hostages out of Iran in public. And so I didn’t, I didn’t talk to the media or to anybody during the last three or four weeks when I was negotiating the release of Xiyue Wang. That is the proper way to handle this.
So we don’t think it’s all that helpful for any sort of talking about prisoners in public. We just try to do this in quiet diplomacy and bring Americans back home.
But I am going to follow up with the Iranians, this was a good first step. I’ll work through the Swiss, the Swiss have been fantastic. They are protecting power. We don’t have an ambassador in Iran. So we rely on the Swiss to represent us in Iran. And they were great. Markus Leitner, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, was a great partner in helping to get Xiyue Wang out of prison. I’ll continue to work with him and the Iranians.
It is a good first step, and I hope this leads to bigger and better things.
VOA: Does the recent swap open any door? Is there any indication that Iranians may be willing to come to the table to discuss all outstanding issues?
Hook: I don’t think the diplomats in Iran that I met with have any mandate from the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to talk to the Americans. I was certainly open to having a conversation with them, but that’s been American policy. The president, the secretary of state have all made clear that we’re, we want to resolve our diplomatic differences bilaterally, through diplomacy, not through military force, which is what Iran has been choosing, and they’ve been making the wrong choice because their economy is in a free fall and the regime is becoming more diplomatically isolated.
But unfortunately, look, I think there are a lot of people in Iran’s foreign ministry that would like to talk to United States and would like to come to the table, but the supreme leader doesn’t give them much of a leash. And I think that became clear in Zurich. And so we hope at some point the supreme leader will start making better choices for his own people instead of making bad choices.
VOA: Is the U.S. advocating for a regime change in Tehran?
Hook: For the 1 millionth time, I’ve said this, the United States policy is a change in behavior. It is not a change in regime. And everybody knows that we have a list of 12 demands. Most of them are based on U.N. Security Council resolutions that were passed unanimously, with votes by China and Russia. These were the international standards before the failed Iran nuclear deal. We are trying to restore those standards. Most of the things that we’re asking for you can find in a U.N. Security Council resolution. It’s not an unrealistic list. It’s very realistic.
And those who think it’s too ambitious, I would ask those people to identify what of the 12 things they would like Iran to keep doing? Do they want Iran to keep enriching nuclear material? Do they want Iran to be proliferating ballistic missiles and sending billions of dollars to Assad and to the Houthis so that they can bomb other countries? This is the right list, this is the right approach. We’re very pleased with the success of our maximum pressure campaign.
VOA: Do you see a Berlin Wall moment in Iran, given the ongoing protests?
Hook: It’s very hard to predict how things go in any country around the world. We do know that Iran is facing its deadliest political unrest in the history of the 40 years of the Islamic Republic. And so we stand with the Iranian people. The Iranian regime has murdered as many as 1,000 Iranians. And the supreme leader calls his own people thugs. And now you’re seeing the regime has lost almost every constituency supporting its revolutionary policy. And now they cling to power with just brute force. And so, we know the Iranian people are demanding the same things that we are, and other nations around the world: stop prioritizing proxies over people. The Iranian people want a better life and they’re tired of all their money being spent in foreign wars.
VOA: For many years, the U.S. has been asking for a consular dialogue with Iran. Has there been any progress? What is the U.S. asking for? What are the sticking points?
Hook: “When I met with Iran’s deputy foreign minister 2 1/2 years ago, Abbas Araghchi, I asked for a consular dialogue and he said no. There have been other times, we’ve asked for it repeatedly and Iran keeps saying no. We’re gonna continue to ask for it.
As I said, I’m really pleased that we were able to make a fair deal with the regime over the release and the exchange of Soleimani for Xiyue Wang. So let’s make this a first step, and I hope that the regime takes advantage of this moment, and let’s build on it.
VOA: Thank you so much for talking to VOA.
Hook: Thank you.
VOA’s Tom Bagnall contributed to this report.