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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: has she been a victim of heavy-handed British foreign policy?

Last month Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was given a further one-year jail sentence and banned from leaving Iran for an additional year. It was yet another brutal reminder of how one woman has been made to suffer amid a political quarrel between Iran and Britain. 

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first arrested in 2016 on charges of espionage and spreading anti-government propaganda, and was jailed for five years. Her continued detention is seen as being plagued by negligence from members of the British government and a deep historical misunderstanding between the West and the Middle East.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born and grew up in Iran’s capital, Tehran, before becoming an English teacher and later a translator. She would go on to work for the World Health Organisation as a communications officer before moving to London to study for a master’s degree at London Metropolitan University. 

During her time in London, she met her future husband, Richard. They married in 2009 and the couple had a daughter in 2014. However, two years later, her varied and interesting personal life would soon be distorted and threatened by the complexities of Iranian law and haphazard British diplomacy and ignorance. Some view these failures from the British government as epitomised by Boris Johnson’s actions as Foreign Secretary. 

On 17 March 2016, she and her 22-month-old daughter were barred from boarding the return flight to London

Prior to her arrest, Zaghari-Ratcliffe would return to visit her parents in Tehran frequently using her Iranian passport to enter the country. After the birth of her daughter, she visited her parents more frequently, allowing them to see their grandchild. However, on 17 March 2016, she and her 22-month-old daughter were barred from boarding the return flight to London by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Nazanin was held in solitary confinement while her daughter was given to Nazanin’s parents to look after.

The circumstances surrounding her arrest remain unclear. In echoes of a nightmarish novel by Kafka or Orwell, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held in solitary confinement for just under eight months on “national security charges.” She was placed on what Amnesty International described as “a grossly unfair trial” and accused of “plotting to topple the Iranian government.” She was subsequently sentenced to five years imprisonment. But how was this possible?

After her master’s degree, Nazanin worked for BBC Media Action – a charity that helped provide training to a number of Iranian citizens in journalism. In 2014, 11 people were imprisoned in Iran for their work on the BBC Media Action programme “ZigZag” that ran from 2006-2010. There was a precedent of suspicion between Iran and the BBC, and it is evident that this distrust directly impacted Nazanin.

Her administrative role at BBC Media Action would be amplified by the Iranian Prosecutor General who argued that she ran “a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran”. She was effectively arrested on the claim that she was a journalist working to bring down the government, despite being in the country solely to visit her parents.

British policy in the Middle East has had a devastating short-term and long-term impact on the region

Enter Boris Johnson. The then-Foreign Secretary, and current Prime Minister, was tasked with negotiating the safe return of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. In a highly politicised case, the Foreign Secretary should have approached the situation with extreme care and sensitivity. However, Johnson’s actions are now regarded as making Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation worse.

A thoughtful approach has never suited Britain’s infamously hasty and rash attitudes towards the Middle East. From the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on false pretences of Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction, to the humiliation of the Suez Crisis in 1956, as well as the colonial mishandling and misjudgement of the state of Palestine following the Balfour declaration in 1914 – British policy in the Middle East has had a devastating short- and long-term impact on the region. Boris Johnson did not break this precedent with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case.

Johnson made a statement that condemned the arrest and sentencing of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and rubbished the idea that she had been working as a spy. However, Johnson also decided to add that she had been “simply teaching people journalism.” He effectively confirmed the grounds on which the Iranian government had arrested her, despite it being untrue. Johnson’s statement was used as evidence against her in the trial and made her ‘grossly unfair trial’ only more unfair.

It is important to also consider the history of British-Iranian relations. Richard Ratcliffe claimed that he believed his wife was being used as a pawn in a wider political chess game between the two nations. Iran is owed up to £400 million from Britain for a collapsed weapons deal in 1971, and Ratcliffe believed that the imprisonment of his wife was used as a chip in Iran’s bargaining. Both Iran and Britain deny this claim.

By the end of this new sentence…she would have spent seven years in Iranian detention

Even if this is not the case, the complicated debt settlement has invariably become entwined with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest. The complexities are deepened when peaceful relations are dependent on the outcome of the ongoing talks in Vienna over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Furthermore, last year the United States and Iran came “perilously close to conflict” following the former’s assassination of Iran’s major general Qasem Soleimani. The close alliance of the United Kingdom and the United States will only place the safe return of Zaghari-Ratcliffe into further jeopardy.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five-year sentence ended and she should have been reunited with her husband and daughter. However, her new jail term and additional banning order will place a terrible strain on her and her family. It appears convenient that this new sentence runs through the Vienna negotiations and intensifies pressure on the West.

Nazanin should not be used as a tool for political point-scoring. By the end of this new sentence – and assuming she is allowed to return to the UK – she would have spent seven years in Iranian detention. Not only is the detention itself harrowing for herself, but the time spent away from her young daughter and husband will also have had significant implications on all of their lives.

During her time in prison Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe began a hunger strike in the hope it would bring about her unconditional release. Mr Ratcliffe also decided to take part in the hunger strike alongside his wife in an attempt to bring further attention to her unjust imprisonment. The strike did little to shift the Iranian authorities and only prompted half-hearted jeering of Iran by British ministers.

The difficulty of her time in prison continued into 2020, in which she contracted Covid-19 in February. She released a statement via the ‘Free Nazanin Campaign’ stating: “I am not good. I feel very bad in fact. It is a strange cold. Not like usual. I know the kinds of cold I normally have, how my body reacts.”

Following the outbreak of the virus in Iran and in Nazanin’s prison, 54,000 prisoners were temporarily released across the nation. The temporary release may have allowed the British government to seize the opportunity to turn the release permanent, however, nothing came of it.

So, what happens now? Following the announcement of this new two-year sentence, pressure has been placed on current Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to find an amicable solution and have Zaghari-Ratcliffe released back to the UK. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has become a victim of an international political chess match

However, it appears unlikely that the Iranian authorities will release her – for she seems to be regarded as a pawn, rather than a person, in this battle between hostile countries. It can be assumed that the results of the Vienna talks and the settling of the £400 million the British government owe Iran impinge directly on the resolution of her detention.

Iran had offered a prisoner swap with Britain previously in 2019, Zaghari-Ratcliffe for Iranian citizen Negar Ghodskan held in Australia. This was rejected outright by Britain, claiming a prisoner swap was a “vile diplomatic manoeuvre.” With Britain hesitant to take part in a prisoner swap and slow to repay the £400 million debt, there is worry that this case might drag on for years.

Despite the failings thus far, there is reason to be optimistic. At the start of May, two high profile American-Iranian prisoners – Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi, who were held on similar charges to Nazanin – have been moved to cells where previously prisoners were held before release. This suggests that Iran may be preparing to release dual-nationality prisoners, either unconditionally or in a prisoner swap, ahead of the nuclear deal talks.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has become a victim of an international political chess match in which her imprisonment has and can be used as leverage for Iran against the West. With relationships and tensions in the Middle East increasingly strained, it is imperative that the British government does not repeat mistakes of the past. The safe and swift return of Nazanin must be a priority for Dominic Raab, but wider political manoeuvres appear to be a hurdle that needs to be cleared cleanly and carefully.

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