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No justice for Nazanin as UK Parliament debates outrage at Iran’s “hostage diplomacy”

Hopes for British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom to return home to her family in the UK have been dashed with a new 1 year sentence imposed by Iran and an additional one year travel ban. 

Despite slim hopes Nazanin might soon return home, Iran has found her guilty of propaganda against the regime. She has already served a five year prison sentence after being arrested in 2016 for allegedly working against the Iranian government and for “membership of organisations working against the Iranian state”, most likely in reference to her work for the charities BBC Media Action and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Nazanin has always denied these accusations, stating that she was just in Iran with her young daughter to celebrate the Iranian new year with her parents. 

It is widely accepted that Nazanin’s continued detention is directly linked to a £400m debt owed by Britain to Iran in 1979 – Iran purchased, but never received a number of Chieftain tanks. Despite neither side officially acknowledging this as a factor, it remains a major stumbling block in negotiations for Nazanin’s release. 

Upon news of the fresh sentence, Nazanin’s constituency Member of Parliament, Tulip Siddiq MP, tabled an Urgent Question in the House of Commons – the seventh time she has had to do so on this topic. 

Ms. Siddiq MP raised the issue of Britain’s outstanding debt to Iran, stating:

“We cannot deny the fact that Nazanin was handed a fresh new sentence a week after the IMS debt court hearing was delayed…Will the minister acknowledge that Nazanin is being held hostage by Iran, and is a victim of torture in light of the recent adjournment of the IMS debt hearings scheduled for last week?”

However, Middle East Minister James Cleverly MP repeatedly refuted links between the debt and Nazanin’s continued detention, instead choosing to emphasise:

“It is indefensible and it is unacceptable that Iran has chosen to continue this wholly arbitrary court case again. This is very radical of the Iranian government, who have deliberately put her through a cruel and inhumane ordeal. We continue to call on Iran in the strongest possible terms to end her suffering and allow her to return home.”

The Minister also rejected hostage diplomacy when pressed by his colleagues, 

“The UK does not and will never accept our dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage” 

And went on to call for the release from detention of all British nationals that are being held. 

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat MP said:

“It’s absolutely essential that we keep focus on this cruel and inhumane treatment of a mother held captive as a hostage as a pawn in order to ransom money out of others, and to extract diplomatic leverage”

The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee also questioned the minister on what opportunities the expansion of the UK Magnitsky Act to encompass corruption presented, asking:

“Perhaps the Minister can tell us what sanctions are going to be brought against the Revolutionary Guard that has so profited from this violent regime?; And now that corruption is permitted as a use for the Magnitsky sanctions, how will that be used to ensure that this regimes pockets are emptied and not filled.”

Throughout the debate the minister also failed to define Iran’s actions as hostage taking, despite a recent Foreign Affairs Committee report titled: “No prosperity without justice: the UK’s relationship with Iran”, recommending that:

“the UK must acknowledge that the practice of the Iranian state arbitrarily detaining nationals amounts to ‘State Hostage Taking’. 

Iran has been using “hostage diplomacy” to attempt to secure favourable deals with the West. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is sadly one of many dual nationals being used by Iran as bargaining chips. 

Among others detained are Mahran Raoof, a British-Iranian who faces trial tomorrow (Wednesday 28 April 2021). The union activist is facing a long sentence as a result of his peaceful labour rights activities. He will be tried alongside Nahid Taghavi, a German Iranian dual national. 

Also currently being detained are;  Anoosheh Ashoori (Iran-UK) Siamak and Baquer Namazi (Iran-US) – with the latter being under house arrest; Disaster medicine expert Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali (Iran-Sweden); Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani (Iran-Canada), Morad Tahbaz (Iran-UK-US), Kamran Ghaderi (Iran-Austria), Massud Mossaheb (Iran-Austria), Karan Vafadari and Afarin Neyssari (Iran-US) and Fariba Adelkhah (Iran-France). 

Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP, commented that:

“Iran’s cruelty seems to know no bounds” but also questioned why the UK did not simply settle the debt to secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

Most of the dual nationals arbitrarily detained in Iran were arrested for “co-operation with enemies of the state”, “activities to overthrow the regime” or “recruitment of spies through foreign embassies”. Many report being subjected to torture through sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, being denied access to health services and legal representation, receiving threats related to their families as well as being coerced into confessing to spying.

As nuclear deal discussions continue with the US, Iran has been open to the possibility of a hostage swap stating that it is seeking the release of all Iranian prisoners held in the US. In 2016, when Iran’s nuclear deal was starting to be implemented, the US and Iran agreed on a prisoner swap that guaranteed the release of American journalist, Jason Rezaian. Furthermore, Iran released British-Australian academic Kylie Moore Gilbert in exchange for three Iranian prisoners in Thailand. Consequently, the added charge given to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during the latest nuclear deal discussions is likely an attempt for Iran to secure a more favourable deal.

Iran’s use of arbitrary detention, torture and coercion of female prisoners to gain financial, economic or diplomatic benefits sits at odds with its desire to take up a position on the UN’s women’s rights committee, The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). There has been outrage that the UN granted this seat at the same time as the systematic abuse of women’s rights and the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been going on in Iran. Rights groups have been calling on the UN to not allow Iran a place in a committee exclusively dedicated to “…the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women”. It raises questions as to how at least four EU and western democracies could have backed Iran’s acceptance in the vote.



Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

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