Princeton Tried To Bridge The US-Iran Gap — Then Tehran And Allies Kidnapped, Detained Two Students

An attempt by Princeton to act as a mediator in mending U.S.-Iran relations resulted in two of the university’s students being kidnapped or detained by Tehran and its allies, Semafor reported on Thursday.

During the Obama administration, Princeton established an Iran center, hosted an Iranian diplomat as a scholar and opened a student exchange program, according to Semafor. Two students who traveled to Iran and the Middle East at Princeton’s behest were eventually kidnapped or detained, and they and their families blame the university for doing too little to help free them, according to internal emails, documents and public records obtained by Iran International and reviewed by Semafor.

Princeton’s student exchange program started when an American-Iranian scholar, Ariane Tabatabai, established correspondence in 2014 between one of the university’s Iran center’s officials and Mostafa Zahrani, a senior Iranian foreign diplomat linked to the country’s military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), according to Semafor.

Tabatabai, who is currently an official at the Pentagon, was reported in 2023 to be a member of the Iran Experts Initiative, an influence operation that sought to recruit Western scholars to promote Iran’s reputation on a global stage.

“I wanted to introduce you to a friend who is in Princeton, and you will see him in Vienna in three weeks,” Tabatabai wrote to Zahrani in an email reviewed by Semafor. “He is interested in sharing with you a plan to send Iranian students to Princeton and to send American students to Iran.”

By 2015, Princeton was ready to send their first student, a Chinese-American named Wang Xiyue, to Iran, Semafor reported.

Wang told Semafor that he was nervous about traveling to Iran. He had relayed to Princeton his concerns about safety in the country, which regularly detains and arrests American citizens, and the fact that the U.S. had a historically poor relationship with Tehran, the outlet reported. He also didn’t speak the country’s native language, Farsi, and his Ph.D. studies weren’t explicitly related to Iranian affairs.

Wang emailed Princeton officials in December 2015 and told them he wanted to be “as transparent as possible” with Iranian officials about the nature of his studies to protect his interests and “not be deported from the country for doing things my visa does not prescribe me to do,” according to Semafor. Princeton officials affirmed to Wang that he would not be in any danger while in Iran and underscored the importance of learning Farsi for his studies, according to emails reviewed by the outlet.

“It’s a good time to go [to Iran] — looks like they are in a good mood over there,” Kevan Harris, an official from Princeton’s Iran center, reportedly told Wang in an email just weeks before his trip to Iran in January 2016. “Take advantage of it.”

Wang’s passport was confiscated by Iranian intelligence officials six months after his arrival and he was subsequently arrested on espionage charges that August, according to Semafor. He was sent to prison for three years, and was sometimes subject to solitary confinement and threats of death.

Wang was released in 2019 during exchange negotiations between the Trump administration and Iran, according to Semafor.

Princeton’s connections to Iran were not properly utilized to free Wang from prison, he reportedly alleged in a 2021 lawsuit against the university, accusing them of negligence.

“Simply put, after encouraging and convincing Mr. Wang to go to Iran, Princeton chose to put their reputation and political interest ahead of Mr. Wang’s personal safety,” the lawsuit reads, according to Semafor.

Princeton reached a settlement with Wang in September 2023, but denied that it put its reputation and Iranian sources ahead of Wang, or was negligent to Wang’s plight, according to Semafor. It also denied that it downplayed to Wang the risks of traveling to Iran.

“Princeton did not direct, and indeed did not have the power to direct, Mr. Wang’s travel,” Princeton spokesman Michael Hotchkiss told Semafor. “And it was Princeton University that undertook a relentless, multi-year and multi-million-dollar global effort to secure his release.”

The second student, Elizabeth Tsurkov, was in Princeton’s graduate program at the time of her kidnapping in the Middle East, according to Semafor. Tsurkov was born in Russia and raised in Israel, and she had traveled to a number of Arab states to extensively cover ongoing conflicts in the region.

Tsurkov’s studies at Princeton focused on political systems within Lebanon, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Semafor. Her thesis proposal in 2021 — which was funded and signed off on by Princeton — described her prior work in the Middle East and her plans to return to the region.

Tsurkov was kidnapped during a trip to Baghdad, Iraq, in March 2023 by a group that the U.S. and Israeli governments believe was Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist group, according to Semafor. Kataib Hezbollah is based in Iraq and regularly takes cues from the IRGC — the group is responsible for killing three U.S. troops in Jordan in January.

Tsurkov remains in captivity, according to Semafor. Kataib Hezbollah reportedly released a proof-of-life video of a visibly fatigued Tsurkov in November, in which she says that she is a CIA and Mossad, an Israeli intelligence agency, operative. The U.S. and Israeli governments deny the claims.

Emma Tsurkov, Elizabeth’s sister, has been openly critical of Princeton’s response, alleging in August 2023 that the university denied its involvement in approving the trip, according to an op-ed in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Princeton admitted in October 2023 that it was responsible for Tsurkov’s travels to Iraq, but raised questions as to whether she followed proper protocols while in the region, according to Semafor. Princeton told the outlet in an email that it is fervently committed to securing her release “by making available reputable outside experts the University has retained and by advocating with US government officials to use their influence to help bring Elizabeth home safely.”

Emma is working to pressure the Iraqi government into helping release her sister, recently confronting the Iraqi prime minister at a Washington think tank and accusing him of “not doing anything to save [Tsurkov],” Semafor reported. The family believes that Iraq should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism and that U.S. aid should be cut unless Tsurkov is released.

Princeton and the Iraqi foreign affairs minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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