Before Reza “Robin” Shahini flew to Iran to visit his ailing mother in May, he was careful to delete years-old postings about Iran on his social-media accounts. He was not a political activist, but Shahini wanted to avoid attracting any attention from Iranian authorities.
For the first six weeks, the trip went as planned. The San Diego resident texted friends photos of his sightseeing in the country of his birth.
But on July 11, Shahini, 46, was arrested in Iran on suspicion of crimes against the Islamic Republic, becoming the latest Westerner with dual citizenship to be detained.
He joined two other U.S. citizens known to be detained, and at least four dual nationals from Britain, Canada and France, three of whom have been arrested in the past five months.
Friends and sources close to the family say that nothing in Shahini’s past suggested he would be targeted. He had made several uneventful trips to Iran before.
But his arrest reflects a shift in tactics by hard-liners in Iran trying to keep the country isolated despite a nuclear deal signed a year ago. Prominent people are not the only ones in the crosshairs. Now, ordinary people are being swept up.
“People with a high profile aren’t traveling to Iran anymore,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council. “So if you want to keep people afraid, you have to go after people who don’t have high profiles.”
In the first two decades after the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranians who fled the country rarely returned. That changed in the late 1990s after the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who advocated more tolerance and openness. But after protests broke out over a contested election in 2009, a government crackdown discouraged them from returning.
The 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned promising engagement with the West, opened the door again. In New York for the U.N. General Assembly, he has vowed to make it easier for Iranian American travelers to visit.
“We have a hard time finding seats for them all,” said Cyrus Beheshti, head of Cyrus Travel in California, who attended a Rouhani dinner in New York last fall and met with the Iranian tourism minister.
But Rouhani has come up against fierce opposition from the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls the intelligence and security services plus the judiciary. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, and the Revolutionary Guards have arrested dual nationals as if they were Iranian citizens.
“There’s often a political and economic logic for Iran’s hard-liners to imprison dual nationals,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It deters diaspora businessmen from visiting Iran, which is less competition for the Revolutionary Guards. It sabotages improved relations with Washington, which Iran’s hard-liners fear. Lastly, it undermines the agenda of the Rouhani government, who has encouraged dual nationals to return to Iran and bring with them foreign investment.”
The release of five Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, when the landmark nuclear deal took effect in January, raised hopes that Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, arrested in October, would soon be released. But Namazi is still behind bars. So is his father, Baquer Namazi, who was arrested in February when he tried to get his son out.
And more arrests have followed.
In March, Nazak Afshar, a French citizen visiting her critically ill mother, was detained on arrival. She has been sentenced to six years in prison on unspecified charges.
In April, Nanzanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British charity worker, was arrested at the airport after visiting family in Iran. Her infant daughter’s passport was confiscated.
“She was an ordinary citizen,” said her husband, Richard Ratcliffe. “She always stayed away from politics so that she would be able to continue visiting.
In early June, Homa Hoodfar, a Canadian academic specializing in women’s issues, was picked up while visiting for family and professional reasons.
“I was certainly surprised of her arrest, because of that fact that she is not a political activist or organizer,” said Mona Tajali, a former student of hers.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Namazi and Hoodfar were all indicted in early July on unannounced charges.
A spokesman for the Iranian judiciary has confirmed the arrest of another Iranian American. He did not name him, but the arrest was made in Shahini’s home town of Gorgan.
The pattern of jailing apolitical people is thwarting Rouhani’s attempts to rebuild the country partly with the help of Iranian exiles, said Hadi Ghaemi, head of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
“It’s flaming waves of concern throughout the expatriate community,” he said. “They see anyone could become a victim to the pattern.”
Iranian Americans contemplating a visit to Iran are scouring their Facebook pages for any evidence that they criticized the government’s behavior during the 2009 protests, said Elise Auerbach, an Iran specialist for Amnesty International.
“Rouhani and his administration can talk about how he welcomes members of the diaspora all he wants,” she said. “But the way the leadership in Iran works, the president doesn’t have any authority over the security apparatus.”
The message is starting to sink in, said Armin Anvaripour, who helps would-be travelers obtain Iranian passports.
“They ask me, ‘Do you think if we go over there they might persecute us?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘I don’t know,’ because nobody knows what is going on.”
In a March travel warning, the State Department said that since the nuclear deal, “Iran has continued to harass, arrest, and detain U.S. citizens, in particular dual nationals.” The department says its ability to assist is “extremely limited,” because Tehran will not allow consular visits from Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran.
The travel warning advises citizens to “carefully consider nonessential travel” to Iran and make advance plans for emergencies. It also urges U.S. citizens to sign up in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to get security messages and help track them down.
Little is known about what happened to Shahini, the son of a fruit and vegetable vendor who emigrated to the United States in 2000.
According to friends and sources close to the family, he settled in San Diego and ran a pizzeria that failed during the recession and a car-repair shop that he sold to become a full-time student. He earned his bachelor’s degree in international conflict resolution and was about to enter graduate school at San Diego State University.
Shahini became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009, according to his girlfriend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has family in Iran. She said Iranian authorities confiscated his electronic equipment and warned his family not to talk to the media.
Lin Kong, a friend from New York City, said Shahini called her just before his arrest, inquiring about the Farsi language she is studying and mentioning places he had visited. He had invited her and other friends to accompany him and discover his country.
“I think he thought it was safe to go back,” she said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.