Iran's hostages Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are free, but what deals have been struck with this oppressive regime? – Struan Stevenson
It is great news that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been freed at last by the Iranian regime and allowed to return to her family in Britain.
Against the unfolding tragedy of the war in the Ukraine, it has been the one bit of uplifting news in recent weeks. The young British/Iranian mother had been imprisoned by the theocratic regime for the past six years, more than four of which she served in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, where she suffered inhuman conditions.
Falsely charged with plotting to overthrow the clerical government, she was arrested in April 2016 while attempting to board a flight back to England at Tehran’s international airport, after taking her two-year-old daughter Gabriella to visit her elderly parents.
Gabriella’s passport was also confiscated by the Iranian authorities and she had to be looked after by her grandparents as her family fought for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.
Dual-nationality is not recognised by the theocratic regime and people of dual Iranian nationality are frequently arrested and held as hostages in spurious attempts to blackmail foreign powers.
It is believed that at least 30 dual and foreign nationals are currently imprisoned in Iran. Their arrests are always followed by a pattern of prolonged solitary confinement and interrogation, against a background of denial of due process, denial of consular access or visits from United Nations’ or humanitarian organisations, secretive trials in which the detainee is given limited access to counsel, and long prison sentences based on vague or unspecified “national security” and “espionage” charges.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s predicament was made worse in November 2017, when Boris Johnson, then UK Foreign Secretary, told a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee that he understood Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran “simply teaching people journalism”.
Although this was clearly not the case, Johnson’s gaffe led to Zaghari-Ratcliffe being summoned back to court in Tehran where she was told that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime” and sentenced to a further year in jail on top of her original five-year sentence.
The agonies that Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her husband Richard, daughter Gabriella and their relatives had to endure, as the constant barrage of trumped-up charges and extended jail terms were dreamed up by the mullahs’ regime, can barely be imagined.
After hunger strikes and protests, which led to her being chained to a bed in a psychiatric wing of Evin Prison, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was described by her husband Richard as being deeply traumatised and suffering from severe depression.
In October 2019, Gabriella was allowed to return from Iran to be with her dad Richard in London. Finally, in March 2020, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was given ‘temporary release’ and sent under house arrest to her parents’ home in Tehran, as the coronavirus pandemic raged through the Evin Prison population.
It was widely believed that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest was closely related to a £400 million deal that the British government had struck with the Shah of Iran, shortly before he was deposed in the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The Shah had paid Britain for 1,500 Chieftain tanks, which, due to the revolution, were never delivered. The mullahs, facing the collapse of the Iranian economy following President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of tough sanctions, were desperate for funds and no doubt considered Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be a useful tool in their blackmail armoury.
Apparently, a team of negotiators from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been beavering away in Tehran for weeks, seeking the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, 68, a British/Iranian engineer jailed by the mullahs for ten years on false spying charges.
Although Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are remaining tight-lipped about the negotiations, it seems likely that the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori are also closely tied to the ongoing talks in Vienna to resurrect the tattered Iran nuclear deal.
Attempts are being made by President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to raise the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal from the dead.
The JCPOA was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. It was agreed between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - China, France, Russia, UK, USA plus Germany, together with the EU, but torn up by Trump in 2018.
Its resurrection will require the renewed agreement of Russia and the corrupt Iranian regime.
Although it seems incomprehensible that anyone could contemplate signing a deal which involves Vladimir Putin and Russia, Iranian officials said last week that they were working with the Americans to negotiate a potential prisoner exchange in tandem with the final signing of the resurrected JCPOA. It looks increasingly likely that the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe was closely tied in with the same agreement.
While her long-awaited freedom is a matter for great celebration and rejoicing in the UK, it must surely be a cause for concern that her ultimate release was part of such a hostage-taking negotiation.
Apparently, the Iranian regime has also demanded the de-listing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTO), as part of the nuclear deal. The four-decade-long involvement of the IRGC and its extra-territorial arm, the Quds Force, in terrorist operations ultimately led to their designation as an FTO in April 2019. Their de-listing would be an historic mistake.
While we exult in Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s homecoming, we should never forget that she was held hostage by the Iranian mullahs in breach of every civilised convention. The mullahs should not be rewarded by the West lifting sanctions and signing up to any flawed and partisan nuclear deal. Rather they should be indicted for their criminal behaviour and held accountable in the international courts.
Struan Stevenson is the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change and chair of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA).
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