As Richard Ratcliffe continues his hunger strike – his second – and grows more gaunt and grim by the day, the Foreign Office is keen to reassure him and all those who care what happens to Richard and his family. “We are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home” it says.
That’s good to hear.
Except that Nazanin was arrested in April 2016. Five and a half years ago. And the words the Foreign Office uses now are almost exactly the same as it used then.
If you can’t recall who Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe is – if indeed there is anyone in this country who doesn’t know, such has been the publicity about her (at least since Richard gave up believing a campaign for her release would be counter-productive, and that he should not make a fuss but allow the FO to work quietly behind the scenes for her release), Nazanin is a dual-nationality Iranian-British woman who had been visiting her parents in Iran with her young daughter when she was arrested at the airport as she prepared to fly home. She was accused of plotting to overthrow the Iranian regime.
She has always absolutely denied the accusation. She is a charity worker and she was on holiday when she was arrested. She has spent four years in a notorious Iranian prison, enduring eight months in solitary confinement and sessions of blindfolded interrogation.
At the moment Nazanin is confined to her parents’ home in Tehran, wearing an electronic tag. In line with the Iranian authorities’ modus operandi, she has been warned that she could be returned to prison at any time. Her young daughter Gabriella is now seven years old, living in London with her father since he and Nazanin decided in 2019 that it would be better for the child to be educated in the UK. Richard hasn’t seen his wife in person since he bid her and Gabriella goodbye for their journey to Tehran in April 2016. The only contact the family now have is via Skype.
It has become increasingly obvious over the years of Nazanin’s imprisonment that the Iranian authorities – at least the very powerful Revolutionary Guard, if not the mainstream administration – are using her as a pawn; they seem utterly impervious to all the appeals which have been made for her release and have played a ruthless ‘cat-and-mouse’ game with her, sometimes suggesting that she may be freed within days, only for nothing to happen. At the end of her first prison term in April 2021 they suddenly imposed a further year’s sentence for “spreading propaganda” against the government, and her appeal against this second term was declared unsuccessful in October. The authorities have told her that at all times she must remain prepared to go back to prison.
They have never chosen – or been able – to show any evidence of wrongdoing, but that hardly seems to matter; and the influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its workings are so arcane as to be impossible for most of us in the west to understand. The procedures of Nazanin’s arrest, the allegations against her, the interrogations to which she has been subjected, her secret ‘trial’ and her imprisonment have been carried out in ways we cannot recognise.
Given these circumstances, it might have been hoped that the UK government would have made strenuous efforts to secure her release. If so, to date they have come to nothing. Indeed, not only have they come to nothing, but Nazanin’s hopes of early release were horribly damaged by our very own prime minister, Boris Johnson.
It was Johnson who, when he was foreign secretary to Theresa May – always a risky appointment given his gaffes, inappropriate ‘jokes’ and apparent inability to attend to any detail – declared at a select committee hearing in November 2016 that Nazanin had been “teaching journalism”. This was not only factually incorrect but it was also seized upon by powerful influencers in Iran as ‘proof’ of the allegations against her. It took Johnson a fortnight to apologise, by which time the damage was done. Nazanin was warned her sentence might actually be increased.
Johnson subsequently promised to “leave no stone unturned” to try to get her released, but while the UK government became bogged down in the insoluble toils of Brexit, on which all attention was focused, Nazanin languished in prison. In July 2018 Johnson resigned from the government as a point of principle – a word not often associated with him – over Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, and Jeremy Hunt was appointed as his successor in the foreign office.
Hunt appeared, from the off, to be making all the right noises about Nazanin’s case, and of all five people who have held the powerful post of foreign secretary whilst Nazanin has been kept from her family, Hunt seems to have been the most personally involved in her case. The Iranian authorities, however, have remained quite unmoved.
In July 2019 when Hunt was ‘invited’ by Johnson to move to the defence department instead, he refused, and left the government. Dominic Raab became foreign secretary (despite apparently not being aware quite how close the UK is, geographically, to France), and although he too used the by-now threadbare ‘no stone unturned’ mantra, his time as foreign secretary seems to have been distinguished only by his going, and remaining, on holiday while Kabul fell to the Taliban. What is certain is that he too failed to obtain Nazanin’s release: like most in Johnson’s government, he was probably so obsessed with ‘getting Brexit done’ that not much else mattered.
There is a huge ‘back story’ to Nazanin’s imprisonment. In 2017 the UK press began reporting that Britain owed Iran over £400m for tanks which, owing to the Islamic Revolution overthrowing the former Shah in 1979, had not been delivered. It is now widely accepted that Nazanin is being held hostage against the debt. If the debt were paid, the UK government would not be ‘rewarding’ the Iranians: this is not a ransom which if paid might encourage kidnappings, but money which our government owes to Iran for goods which were the subject of an agreed contract, only a fraction of which was delivered.
It sounds a massive amount of money, doesn’t it, £400m? But against the background of the budget for, say, Test, Track and Trace (£37bn, much of the money spent to date having been given in contracts to companies “with political connections”), £400m is a relatively modest sum.
Nazanin is not the only British-Iranian dual national being held in Iran – there are three others: Anoosheh Ashoori, detained since August 2017; Morad Tahbaz, detained since January 2018, and Mehran Raoof, detained since October 2020. Altogether the Iranians are thought currently to be holding at least 15 dual nationals, but owing to the authorities not recognising dual nationality, it is difficult to base any negotiations for their release on mutual interest. The foreign office explains why it is not able to offer much direct support, or visits to jailed Iranian citizens who also hold UK passports: “the FCDO’s ability to provide consular support is extremely limited”.
There is, unfortunately, an additional factor which further complicates the situation – enormously – the attempts by Iran to persuade the west to lift the sanctions imposed upon it in stages since 1979. Some have been lifted and then reimposed, but when Donald Trump was US president he withdrew from the agreement (‘the nuclear deal’ or JCPOA) which was reached under Barack Obama’s presidency, and which had made progress. The situation seems to have gone into reverse since Trump’s decision. The sanctions are intended mainly to prevent the Iranian regime from obtaining enough enriched uranium from their nuclear facilities that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Iran has always insisted that is not its aim, but that the country must be allowed to produce more of its own energy.
Since the election in June 2021 Iran is now led by a cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who is thought to be much more ‘hardline’ than his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, and although discussions were beginning again to try to revive ‘the nuclear deal’, even these talks were suspended – apparently because Iran is said to be demanding further concessions from the US.
There may be a small chink of light for Nazanin: with Iranian officials arriving in London on 11 November for talks with the foreign office, some progress might be possible. Let us all hope that the present foreign secretary Liz Truss (admittedly a busy woman, self-promoting in Thailand, having a spat with Dominic Raab over the use of Chevening(£) and being a style icon), will actually leave no stone unturned to bring Nazanin home.
You can read more from Amnesty International; if you wish to help the campaign, you could sign Richard’s petition. You can read more about the ‘Free Nazanin’ campaign here on twitter, and on Facebook here. The family’s MP, Tulip Siddiq, has steadfastly supported the family; you could write to your own MP, asking him or her to help bring pressure to bear.
And you could write to Richard to offer him your support during his hunger strike. The only address you need is:
“Richard Ratcliffe, outside the Foreign Office, King Charles St, London SW1A 2AH”.