RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In just the past week, Iranian courts have sentenced three Americans to lengthy prison terms. All are dual nationals, Iranian-Americans. And the latest, a man from San Diego, is facing the toughest punishment yet on what appears to be a case based on his Facebook posts. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: San Diego resident Robin Shahini was back in Iran to visit his mother when he was arrested over the summer. VICE News is quoting him as saying that the Iranians used his social media posts as evidence against him in a case that ended with an 18-year prison term. The length of that sentence came as a shock to Hadi Ghaemi, who runs a New York-based nonprofit called the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
HADI GHAEMI: It was a very surprising and draconian sentence because Shahini is not someone who has any track record as a dissident or a well-known activist.
KELEMEN: Shahini, who's in his mid-40s, may have supported the 2009 anti-government Green Movement in Iran, Ghaemi says in our Skype call. But many Iranians living in the U.S. did and Shahini wasn't well-known in those circles. Ghaemi suspects Iranian hardliners are just using these cases to flex their muscles ahead of next summer's elections in Iran and undermine President Hassan Rouhani, who's trying to open up to the West to improve Iran's economy.
GHAEMI: They are showing that they are in full control of domestic affairs. And Rouhani should not try to take any initiatives ahead of elections to challenge them.
KELEMEN: There are also indications that Iranian hardliners are holding out for a deal like the prisoner swap in January, when several Americans were freed. That same day, the U.S. cleared an old financial claims case. State Department spokesman John Kirby says if money is what's motivating Iran to arrest more Americans, they should be disabused of that notion.
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JOHN KIRBY: We don't pay ransom. We didn't then, we don't now. We're not going to change the policy going forward. And we're going to continue to raise our concerns with Iranian officials about detained citizens there. That's not going to stop.
KELEMEN: Two other Iranian-Americans, a father and son, were given 10 years in prison each earlier this month. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.