Too Risky for Researchers?

Following 10-year jail sentence for Princeton Ph.D. student, scholars discuss the uncertainties of doing research in Iran.

July 25, 2017
Xiyue Wang

How safe is it to do research in Iran? What are the risks, and have they changed?

Academics who have conducted research in the country weighed in on those questions following the recent news that a Princeton Ph.D. student, Xiyue Wang, had been sentenced by an Iranian court to 10 years in prison for alleged espionage. In reporting on Wang’s sentence, The Washington Post quoted the account of the official news agency of Iran’s judiciary, Mizan, which said that Wang was sentenced as part of an “infiltration project” involving the gathering of “confidential articles” to send to the U.S. State Department and Western academic institutions. The New York Times reported that Mizan accused Wang of having digitally archived 4,500 pages of documents and having done “super-confidential research for the U.S. Department of State, Harvard Kennedy School and British Institute of Persian Studies.”

Wang, a fourth-year graduate student of history at Princeton and an American citizen of Chinese descent, reportedly was studying the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925. News of his sentence came the same day Iran announced the arrest of the brother of President Hassan Rouhani as part of a corruption inquiry, in what the Times described as a seeming attempt by Rouhani’s hard-line rivals to undermine him.

Wang’s adviser, the Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin, told National Public Radio’s All Things Considered that Wang had reached out to established scholars prior to leaving for Iran and that he was well prepared. "Everything he did is normal -- absolutely everything he did is normal, standard practice for scholars in this region and elsewhere," Kotkin said.

Some scholars who have conducted research in Iran said the news of Wang’s jail sentence hit them hard. This is not the first time academics or students have been jailed in Iran, but Wang’s case stands out as somewhat unusual in a couple respects. Many of the other arrests have involved dual Iranian and American citizens, who the State Department warns face particular risk of arrest and detention. Scholars also pointed out that the subject of Wang’s historical research seems uncontroversial on its face.

“It gives me chills because I was doing the exact same thing between 2009 and 2011,” said Eric Lob, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. “I was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton doing fieldwork in Iran. I went there three times. Each trip was about three to four months of duration, and at the end of my third and last trip, I was detained. That was the last time I was there.”

Lob was doing research on politics and development in post-revolutionary Iran. “It was certainly a more sensitive topic,” he said. In addition to archival research he was interviewing officials at a government ministry that had buildings around Tehran. "I had been doing interviews at the ministry at this particular building several times, and my last time doing interviews there the security forces came in at the middle of an interview with an official,” Lob recalled.

“They kept me for several hours -- they were making phone calls, they were shouting at me and accusing me of doing sensitive political research,” Lob continued. “Fortunately, because I had been there already on and off for over a year, some officials at the ministry walked in after several hours and intervened on my behalf. These officials from the ministry were arguing with these intelligence or security agents. They finally agreed to release me and they told me never to come back to this building.”

“What’s so difficult is you can’t really predict what will happen there. That’s part of the stress as a researcher. There’s an arbitrariness about how things happen,” Lob said. He added that -- seemingly paradoxically -- the election and recent re-election of Rouhani, a moderate, to the presidency might actually increase the risk of arrest and detention for foreign researchers by rival hard-line and conservative forces that feel they are on the defensive.

Shervin Malekzadeh, a visiting professor of political science at Williams College, views the climate for foreign researchers in Iran with ambivalence. On the one hand, he described a flourishing academic atmosphere in Iran. On the other, he condemned the “completely arbitrary manner in which these scholars, researchers, travelers and private citizens are being snatched up by ‘the system.’”

“Not to be Pollyannaish about it, there are a lot of people who come and go to Iran -- with great hesitancy, perhaps -- and do this kind of work,” Malekzadeh said in a phone interview. “This is the open secret about academic research in Iran, specifically. I think North Korea might come to mind, or so-called closed states or rogue societies. Iran’s not like that. It has a very vibrant scientific and academic community that necessarily involves local actors doing research.”

“That a foreigner would show up and do that sort of research, there’s already a context, there’s already an infrastructure,” he continued. “It’s not like you’re coming from space. There will be other people in that room doing research with you.”

At the same time, Malekzadeh said, “there’s no way to anticipate what the red line is. This sort of scenario” -- Wang’s arrest -- “speaks to a situation that’s impossible to predict. I can’t emphasize enough how his subject matter cannot possibly have been sensitive.”

Malekzadeh said he would be hesitant to go to Iran right now, as he thinks tension that's playing out between different factions of Iran's political system increases the danger. At the same time, he said in a follow-up email, he remains convinced that “there is no closing of doors or systematic crackdown on research and study. The contradiction is that the lack of systematic suppression, what distinguishes Iran from, say, Turkey right now, that gives me hope that the research can and will (and must) continue. It is also what makes it so unnerving to carry out research in Iran.”

“As in many countries, fieldwork and research in Iran require local contacts, often scholars or students, who are more familiar with the informal rules of gaining access to materials which, in most cases, are ostensibly available to the public,” said Kevan Harris, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has done extensive research in Iran, including fieldwork observation, interviews with officials and archival research, and has written a forthcoming book from the University of California Press on politics and the welfare state in Iran.

“Citizenship sometimes hinders access, as does country of origin,” Harris said via email. “British and American researchers might be viewed more skeptically by administrators or officials than individuals from Germany, Italy or Turkey, for instance. There is always uncertainty of gaining access, and few incentives for archive officials to grant it to someone who knocks on the front door without anyone to vouch for them.”

“The National Archives and Library of Iran, where Wang hoped to conduct his research, is well curated and professionally organized,” Harris continued. “The reading room is full of students, scholars and dilettantes. Wang was conducting historical research on a conventional topic, far removed from the contemporary period and one on which many books inside Iran are published, but someone in Iran still construed this as a nefarious threat. The tragic irony for Xiyue Wang is that national archives in other Central Asian countries relevant to his studies on 19th-century diplomatic history, such as in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, are more closed off to foreign researchers than those in Iran.”

“People weigh the uncertainty on an ad hoc basis since it is incalculable,” Harris said. “As someone who supervises students who do fieldwork in many countries, I would say that such a challenge is not unique to Iran.”

“In my opinion it’s always been risky,” said one Iranian studies researcher who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize future research travel to Iran. “I don’t know if it’s any riskier now than it ever was.”

Part of what makes research in Iran risky, this researcher said, is that the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations with Iran -- “and the rules they play by regarding American citizens are their rules.” (Since there is no American Embassy in Iran, the U.S. relies on the Swiss Embassy to provide protective services to American citizens.)

“I don’t know if it’s ever been 100 percent safe,” the researcher said. “I think you’ll just have to assume you’ll be watched and someone can misconstrue what you’re doing -- or in the case of the Princeton graduate student, they may have said, ‘Let’s grab him.’”

“The people who go anyway do it out of, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s an insanity, but a desire to complete their research and to learn, and, I think, most out of a love of Iran. That has to be part of it; otherwise it becomes too risky,” the researcher said.

Some scholars have assessed the risks as being too high, at least for themselves. Hussein Banai, an assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies, was born in Iran and lived there until he was 15. He has not returned since 1999, when he participated in student demonstrations against the regime and was briefly detained. He studies liberalism in modern Iran and U.S.-Iran relations.

“I could very easily be seen as someone who’s trying to stoke some kind of trouble, so I’ve resolved not to go ever since I got serious about scholarly work,” Banai said. It’s “absolutely” a hindrance to feel unable to go there, he said. “I’ve seen it really be a hindrance to people whose work really requires ethnographic research; they need to be in touch not just with archives but with people. For those of us who do political research that relies on primary sources, it is a hindrance.”

Asked of the risk for researchers in Iran in general, Banai said, “One has to say after this latest arrest that it is no longer a kind of low to moderate [risk], but moderate to high. Not only has the emphasis shifted away from first Iranian citizens, then Iranian dual citizens and now American citizens, but it seems to be a part of a larger political score settling” between Iran’s hard-liners and moderates “that is just increasingly difficult to gauge and to properly assess ahead of time.”

Suzanne Maloney, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said she advises students against travel to Iran.

“It has always been subject to a certain degree of uncertainty and risk simply because there is no American diplomatic presence there, but what I’ve seen is an uptick in the number of cases of individuals who are there, particularly via solo travel as researchers or on student internships, who find themselves subject to a higher degree of harassment and scrutiny and even in a number of cases detention, for no obvious reasons,” Maloney said in a phone interview. “These are not people who are engaging in obviously questionable behavior or whose work is overtly political.”

“I know this is like many countries -- students have to assume a certain degree of risk -- but I think given the possible consequences, even if still ultimately the risks are relatively low, I think it’s not a responsible choice to either encourage students to travel to Iran, to finance it, and to suggest that there are real ways to mitigate against this risk,” she said.


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