Much like previously arrested dual nationals like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Amir Hekmati, Shahini was reportedly in Iran to visit family who remained in the country after he moved away in the late 1990s. The 18 year sentence that Shahini received represents approximately the same amount of time that he had lived as an expatriate in the United States. Western media indicates that he had resided in San Diego for 16 years and had recently graduated from San Diego State College.
Shahini also planned to continue his studies following acceptance into a graduate program in homeland security. This fact may have contributed to the Iranian judiciary’s decision to prosecute him, although no evidence has been presented to suggest that he was engaged in espionage or any other recognizably criminal activities. Indeed, when interviewed by the AP over the phone, Shahini indicated that his trial has consisted almost entirely of the airing of his previous Facebook posts, which included criticism of the Iranian regime.
Shahini also acknowledged that he had voiced support for the 2009 protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That movement is still referred to as the “sedition” by Iranian officials. Its leaders remain under house arrest despite campaign promises to the contrary made by current President Hassan Rouhani. Other participants in the protests remain in Iranian prisons to this day, while some others were killed under torture.
Shahini’s tenuous connections to Iranian activism, together with his longtime residence in the United States, make him a doubly attractive target for Iranian authorities’ crackdowns, and this fact may go some way toward explaining why his sentence is eight years longer than those given to the Namazis and 13 years longer than the five-year sentence given Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was accused of attempting to foment a “soft revolution” while visiting the country along with her two-year-old daughter.
Although there is no indication of actual connections between Shahini and the US government, his intended studies of homeland security invite the perception of those connections on the part of Iranian hardliners. Those hardliners are recognizably antagonistic toward anyone who falls victim to such allegations. This fact was on display on Tuesday via another story that appeared in Western media.
Iran News Update previously reported upon last month’s visit to Iran by Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis. The report noted that it was odd that Dabakis had been allowed into the country at all, given that the Iranians had barred entry to other American politicians. Now, as the Washington Post noted on Tuesday, the visit has reportedly become a point of contention within the Iranian government, with hardline figures criticizing the Intelligence Ministry’s handling of the situation.
Iranian officials have given somewhat contradictory accounts of the visit. While some insist that Dabakis did not clearly indicate on his visa application that he was an elected official in the US, Dabakis himself says that he listed his profession both as art dealer and state senator. Now, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi seems to indicate that the politician was knowingly allowed into the Islamic Republic so that he could be kept under thorough surveillance during his six-day visit.
Although Alavi and his critics apparently have differing views on how the visa application should have been handled, the intelligence minister’s comments seem to indicate that both sides had similar suspicions about ulterior motives behind Dabakis’ trip, which he says was aimed at encouraging diplomatic and cultural contact between the two civilian populations.
Of course, this stated goal is itself objectionable to the Iranian leadership, a fact that was underscored in a New York Timesreport about Iran’s changing approach to foreign policy. That report stated that the government of the Islamic Republic is actively trying to strike a balance between continued aggression and tactical outreach to the international community. The former trend is reflected in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ provocations against US ships in the Persian Gulf and in the judiciary’s increasingly harsh sentencing of Western nationals. The latter trend, meanwhile, is arguably on display when high-ranking Iranian officials urge the US to lift the lingering restrictions on trade between Iran and the West.
The Times report quotes sources close to Iranian hardliners in order to specify that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is urging the creation of a situation in which there is sustained economic contact between Iran and the West, but cultural and political influence is kept entirely at bay. Such a policy derives from extreme economic need in the wake of years of economic sanctions, but also from paranoia about Western “infiltration.”
Khamenei began publicly warning of that infiltration virtually before the ink was dry on the July 2015 nuclear agreement. And that paranoia has been expressed in various contexts since then, including in the midst of the controversy of Dabakis’ visit. The Daily Mail points out that hardliners have accused Dabakis of being part of “a major Western project to infiltrate” the country.
Presumably, arrests of such figures are discouraged by the risk of an international incident and by the fear of forcing the cancelation of sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement. The harsh prosecution of dual nationals visiting Iran may partly make up for this. At the same time, it serves to caution the West against sending its own representatives to Iran, as opposed to working with existing residents who are loyal to state-linked businesses and economic institutions.
The limits of Iran’s prosecutorial efforts may leave open the possibility for Western entities to engage economically with the Islamic Republic and avoid immediate risk. After all, the Times report suggests that Iran is willing to do business with the West as long as there is little or no appearance of cultural or political “infiltration.” But this is little comfort to the vocal critics of current US policy toward Iran. Those critics tend to question the value of economic contact with the Islamic Republic if its leadership will continue to effectively and aggressively obstruct the chances of political and social reform.
Criticism along these lines was voiced in an editorial at Commentary Magazine on Monday. The article noted that Sunday was the anniversary of the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut by Iran-backed terrorists. The incident killed 241 US servicemen and the article suggested that this might be the sort of outcome that is in store if the US continues to be permissive of Iran’s political and cultural activities, for the sake of economic engagement. Furthermore, that economic engagement raises the specter of Western business partners indirectly financing terrorism carried out by Iran proxies.
It is certainly the case that the Islamic Republic is seeking to grow its global influence, in line with a constitutional mandate to export the principles of the Iranian Revolution. However, for the time being the success of that expansion in some areas remains in doubt. There has been growing recognition of those efforts, and opposition to it in areas such as Nigeria. There, according to Nigerian news site Omojuwa, a student group has begun urging the government to prevent Nigerians from traveling to study Islam in Iran, where they risk radicalization.
Naturally, though, opponents of Iran’s global influence are concerned not just about the perils of direct contact with Iranian hardliners, but also about the prospect of those hardliners having additional economic resources to bring to bear on the radicalization efforts, as economic contact continues with the West, but in absence of constraints on Iran’s domestic or foreign policies.