Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Anglo-Iranian Relations and Hostage Diplomacy

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Anglo-Iranian Relations and Hostage Diplomacy

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in March 2016, marking the start of a five year ordeal which only now seems to have any prospect of ending. Her case is riddled with geopolitical complexities, an assessment of which offers a damning indictment not only of Iran’s policy of ‘hostage diplomacy’, but also of the British government’s approach to its nationals abroad when faced with tricky diplomatic obstacles. 

Case Overview

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a dual citizen of Britain and Iran. In March 2016 she made a visit to her parents in Tehran, but before boarding her return flight was arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. 

She was detained for ‘membership of organisations working against the Iranian state’, a charge referencing her work for BBC Media Action and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, bodies that work to promote access to impartial media in developing countries. 

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has always denied taking part in anti-Iran action, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Since her arrest, she has been subjected to numerous human rights abuses, which have included over eight months of solitary confinement and blindfolded interrogations. She has also been denied medical attention, in response to which she went on hunger strike. 

On 7th March 2021, Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s initial sentence ended, but she was swiftly recalled to court to face charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the system’, referencing a critical interview she gave to the BBC Persian service twelve years ago. 

For now her case remains in the balance, with the outcome of this latest trial remaining uncertain. According to her family this means she currently spends her time under house arrest with two bags packed – one for home, and one for prison.  

A Complicated Situation 

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal has represented a flagrant breach of human rights through arbitrary detention on the part of the Iranian state. She has been caught up in a policy of ‘hostage diplomacy’, which has also entrapped innocent citizens from Canada and the US amongst others. Through this, Iran has sought to extract concessions from the West in exchange for the release of its nationals. 

In Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, the sought concession is financial. Iran points to a £400m debt owed by the British government since 1979 – the Iranian government at the time purchased tanks from Britain, but these were never delivered as a result of the Iranian Revolution. 

This is a link that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has explicitly made, responding to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s condemnation of Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention with a complaint that no ‘practical progress’ had been made on the debt issue.

Diplomatic Wrangling

For its part, Britain has acknowledged its responsibility for the debt, but fears that addressing the two issues together could legitimise the practice of hostage diplomacy. This has led to British government passivity, something that Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has been outspoken on. 

Repeated condemnations of the situation have come from Westminster, but these have rarely extended beyond rhetoric. Whilst Iran has been highly reluctant to cooperate, denying for instance British representation at Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s latest trial, the UK has been accused of playing for Iranian goodwill through a lack of meaningful interference. 

For instance, the British government has emphasised Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s dual-citizenship, using it as an excuse to absolve itself of safeguarding obligations. 

This is a concerning trend, which on the other side of the moral compass was also shown in the high-profile example of Shamima Begum, the British-Bangladeshi citizen stripped of her citizenship for participation in the Islamic State. 

This renouncement of citizenship responsibilities is far more egregious in the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, with her lack of wrongdoing offering the government no moral shield behind which to hide. 

This approach contrasts with the increasingly developed efforts of other states to respond to hostage diplomacy. For instance, in 2020 the US passed the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery Act, and now has a special envoy for hostage affairs

Although it would be wrong to see this as a definitive answer to hostage diplomacy from the US side, it still marks a much more coherent policy than that exercised by the British government. 

Potential Outcomes and Significance

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been put through a horrendous ordeal through no fault of her own. The hostage diplomacy that has entrapped her is a particularly painful foreign policy tool, and one that sadly has regularly been proven to work. 

Her example and that of those like her serves more than anything to demonstrate that hostage diplomacy will likely remain a fixture of the diplomatic toolbox of states that lack significant domestic human rights lobbies. 

As the British government’s impotence has shown in this case, Western states often simply do not have the means or willpower to meaningfully challenge arbitrary detention of their nationals when placed in the broader diplomatic context. 

Whilst positive steps are being made in this regard, not enough has yet been done. Since hostage diplomacy is not going anywhere, the formation of coherent means of addressing it when it happens has to be made a priority of policy makers. 

Tags: Iran, UK

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