Iran’s judiciary, which broke the news on Sunday of Mr. Wang’s arrest and punishment, said Mr. Wang had entered the country “under the cover of a researcher,” had secretly worked for American and British intelligence via a “spider web” of connections and had digitally archived 4,500 documents.
Mr. Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which could further irritate relations with the United States, where Iran’s incarceration of Americans has been a festering issue.
Princeton University acknowledged after the announcement that it had known about Mr. Wang’s arrest but had sought to keep it quiet, respecting his family’s wishes while working with the State Department and other channels to secure his release. Mr. Wang has a wife and a child in the United States.
In a statement to Princeton faculty, students and staff on Monday, the university’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, explained the school’s earlier silence, saying it reflected “the recommendation of multiple advisers inside and outside of government who counseled us that publicity might be harmful to our student’s interests.”
Credit via Associated Press
Mr. Wang’s colleagues were frank in their anger about what had befallen him.
“Xiyue Wang is an unbelievable scholar, father, and classmate,” Elaine Ayers, a doctoral candidate in the history of science, wrote on her Twitter account. “Beyond concerned for his safety and wellbeing.”
Anna Lind-Guzik, a graduate student in Russian history, wrote: “This is nuts! Xiyue Wang is a friend. We did all our coursework together. Hes a kind family man, great scholar & furthest thing from a spy.”
Mr. Wang’s thesis adviser, Professor Stephen Kotkin, strongly defended Mr. Wang’s work in a statement sent via email, describing him as a linguistically gifted doctoral candidate.
Mr. Kotkin also implicitly criticized the Iranian judicial authorities, saying they made a colossal misjudgment about what constitutes espionage. “The documents Wang read and collected during his time in Tehran are 100 or more years old,” Mr. Kotkin said.
Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for improved relations with Iran, also described the accusations against Mr. Wang as ridiculous. “From the evidence made public by Iran’s judiciary against Mr. Wang, it appears that his only crime was to read books at a public library,” Mr. Parsi said.
He also said Mr. Wang’s prosecution reflected efforts by hard-line opponents of Mr. Rouhani to sabotage his effort to promote interactions with the West.
“This serves to deter those who want to study in the country,” he said. “As they see Rouhani having greater success, things like this, precisely because they’re so absurd, will have a chilling effect.”
Mr. Wang’s case also reverberated in Beijing, his birthplace, where he had always shown a penchant for foreign languages.
According to Chinese news media accounts, Mr. Wang went to the United States when he was 19 and studied at the University of Washington and at Harvard University, focusing on southern Asian languages and religion in Middle Asia.
He became proficient in Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, and for a time worked as a translator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he helped Afghans traumatized by violence and death from the American-led war against the Taliban.
An article titled “Me and the Taliban, Face to Face” about Mr. Wang, posted in 2010 on the Red Cross’s Chinese-language website, described Kandahar as “the most dangerous place in the world” for a translator.