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With 3 U.S. Citizens In Iranian Jail, A Look At What's Driving The Arrests


Iran arrested another U.S. citizen visiting the country this month. There are now three Americans being held there, all dual Iranian-U.S. nationals. Iran also holds citizens of other Western countries. NPR's Michele Kelemen has this story about the politics that might be driving these arrests.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: According to his friends, Robin Shahini of San Diego was visiting his ailing mother in Iran when he was arrested earlier this month. Iranian authorities have also arrested dual nationals from the U.K., Canada and France in recent weeks. Iranian-American business consultant Bijan Khajehpour sees a pattern here. He says hardliners are picking up people for political leverage, though they've not yet made clear what they want in return.

BIJAN KHAJEHPOUR: It's like this carpet merchant that has not hashed a price for the carpet.

KHAJEHPOUR: Khajehpour spent over three months in jail himself back in 2009 when Iranian hardliners were cracking down on political opponents. He spoke to journalists today in Washington as he continues to advocate for the release of his friends Siamak and Baquer Namazi, an American father and son both languishing in Iranian jail.

Khajehpour says he understands that the U.S. may not want to cut a deal with the Iranians that would simply encourage more arrests. The U.S. already cleared a $1.7 billion legal dispute back in January when Iran released five Americans from prison. So he's suggesting the U.S. do something reversible this time.

KHAJEHPOUR: Why not start thinking about removing some of the companies - Iranian companies that are still on the blacklist but then communicate to the Iranians. Say very clearly, another arbitrary arrest, and these companies plus a few other companies will end up on the blacklist.

KELEMEN: He says he's been in touch with the State Department about this. State Department spokesman John Kirby would only say that Secretary of State John Kerry raises these cases when he can.

JOHN KIRBY: We have obviously an obligation to look after the safety and security of American citizens abroad. We take that very, very seriously. We do not miss an opportunity to raise with Iran our concerns about American citizens that are unjustly detained there.

KELEMEN: Khajehpour says it's good that the secretary talks to Iranian diplomats, but he thinks the Obama administration needs to talk to Iranian security officials as it did in January when the five prisoners were released.

KHAJEHPOUR: I can tell you that when it comes to cases like this, the Iranian foreign ministry is more or less just the messenger.

KELEMEN: This isn't just about relations with the West. He says hardliners are also motivated by internal politics. They appear to be trying to undermine President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who signed the nuclear deal, and play more of a role in deciding the next supreme leader.

But Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says the sad reality is that hardliners are already running the show in Iran, and that's why he says this is no time for the U.S. to make concessions or encourage investment in Iran.

MARK DUBOWITZ: The Iranian regime is continuing a decades-long tradition of hostage taking for the Iranian regime. Hostage taking is a form of statecraft, and unfortunately the regime has been rewarded over the years by successive administrations and therefore feels that they can act with impunity.

KELEMEN: He says the Obama administration should do what it said it would after agreeing to the nuclear deal - punish Iran for its other nefarious behavior, whether it's testing ballistic missiles, violating human rights norms or arresting people and holding them as bargaining chips. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.