DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- An Iranian-American held in Tehran has reportedly been sentenced to 18 years in prison for "collaboration with a hostile government," another dual national convicted in a secret trial since Iran's nuclear deal with world powers.
The sentence handed down to Robin Shahini, a 46-year-old graduate student who lives in San Diego, is the harshest yet for those detained in what analysts believe is hard-liner plan to use them as bargaining chips in future negotiations.
Shahini told Vice News in an interview aired late Monday that he "just laughed" after hearing his sentence. He acknowledged supporting the protests that followed Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, but denied being involved in any sort of spying.
"Whatever information they had is all the pictures I posted in Facebook, in my web blog, and they use all those (as) evidence to accuse me," Shahini said in a telephone call from prison.
Iranian judiciary officials did not respond to request for comment from The Associated Press on Tuesday, nor did Iran's mission to the United Nations.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said it was troubled by reports of Shahini's sentence.
"We reaffirm our calls on Iran to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, cease arbitrary and politically motivated detentions and ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings," it said.
Shahini, who traveled to Iran to see his mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was detained on July 11. He left Iran in 1998 and has lived in San Diego for 16 years. He graduated in May from San Diego State University with a degree in International Security and Conflict Resolution and had been accepted to SDSU's graduate program in Homeland Security.
Shahini's girlfriend, who also lives in San Diego, said she spoke to him after he received word of his sentence.
"We both just cried," she told The Associated Press. "We didn't know how to react. It was just a joke or nightmare, I didn't know what to call it."
The girlfriend asked not to be identified because she has family in Iran and fears for their safety. She said she has been able to communicate with Shahini regularly and he has told her that his detention has been mentally tough. His cell has no natural light and he has no idea what time of day it is.
Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, meaning that those it detains cannot receive consular assistance. In most cases, dual nationals have faced secret charges in closed-door hearings before Iran's Revolutionary Court, which handles cases involving alleged attempts to overthrow the government.
Analysts and family members of those detained in Iran have suggested that hard-liners in the Islamic Republic's security agencies want to negotiate another deal with the West to free the detainees.
A prisoner exchange in January that freed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans also saw the U.S. make a $400 million cash delivery to Iran the same day. The payment of that cash, part of a $1.7 billion settlement of a decades-old arbitration claim between the United States and Iran, has drawn criticism from Republicans including presidential candidate Donald Trump, who describe it as a ransom payment.
In September, Iran freed retired Canadian-Iranian university professor Homa Hoodfar amid negotiations to reopen embassies in the two nations.
Last week, Iran's judiciary announced it handed down 10-year prison sentences to Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father, Baquer Namazi . Iran earlier sentenced Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe , a British-Iranian woman traveling with her young daughter, to five years in prison on allegations of planning the "soft toppling" of Iran's government.
Still missing is former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission.
For Shahini, he said he wasn't sure whether he'd file an appeal, but said he also had another option to protest his sentence.
"I do a hunger strike — until either they free me or I die," he said.
Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.