Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a 42-year-old British-Iranian journalist who, for the past five years, has been arbitrarily detained in Iran. On the surface it appears to be a case of a national security breach leaving a mother separated from her family, but when you dig a little deeper it is so much more; diplomatic failures, political games, and decades-long rivalries that are being played out with a British mother as the pawn.
In March 2016, Zaghari-Ratcliffe took her daughter Gabriella to visit her parents in Tehran for Iranian New Year – but before she could fly home she was arrested without an explanation. Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent the next eight and a half months in solitary confinement where she was denied access to her lawyer and had little contact with her family. In September 2016, the journalist was sentenced to five years in prison in an unfair trial in which the evidence against her was kept a secret. Her imprisonment ended on the 7th March this year and, while her ankle tag was removed, her movements still remain restricted and an additional trial date has been set for another trumped-up charge.
This information brings about a lot of questions. Why was an innocent woman arrested if she was just on holiday? Why does Iran not want her to leave? What is the British Government doing about it? There is no clear answer to any of these questions, but they all seem to point towards a decades-old tension between the two countries of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s citizenship: Britain and Iran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband believes his wife is being held as a political bargaining chip. The fact that her sentence was handed down on September 6th - one day after the UK appointed an ambassador to Iran for the first time since 2011 - fuels claims that she is being held by Iran to manipulate the UK into settling a multi-million pound dispute with Iran which dates back to the 1970s. This could explain why the Government hasn’t pushed harder for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release and even questioned it, with Boris Johnson carelessly fuelling lies that the journalist wasn’t just on holiday – but was instead there to teach people journalism, which may have led to the doubling of her sentence.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband and daughter at a protest outside the Iranian Embassy, London. Source: The National.
The said multi-million pound dispute is a £400 million one dating back to the 1970s when, before the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the UK failed to deliver Chieftain Tanks to the country. This is still the case even after a 2008 international arbitration ruled that they needed to. It was only in 2020 that the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, finally acknowledged that for the first time that the British Government is actively seeking to repay the debt to the Iranian Government, which could finally help to secure the release of British dual nationals such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe. However, this is arguably too little too late. The Government has had almost 50 years to pay the debt yet the arrest and, as her lawyers claim, the “torture” of Zaghari-Ratcliffe was still not enough to get them to cough up. The wife of Anoosheh Ashoori, another British-Iranian imprisoned in Tehran, said it was easy for the Government to urge families to rely on “hush-hush diplomacy” but that it is “less easy to be patient when it is your loved one being subjected to more psychological and physical damage”.
What’s believed to be the 11th hearing since 2013 to resolve the (non-)payment of debt in UK courts was scheduled for the 20th April, but has been postponed yet again, adding more fuel to the belief that the Government would rather keep Zaghari-Ratcliffe trapped in Tehran than pay what they owe.
Using people as pawns in a political chess game is no new story. For decades, spies from across the world have been held as collateral to manipulate their country of origin, but there is no convincing evidence that Zaghari-Ratcliffe committed espionage. As the general consensus reports, she was simply a mother visiting her parents for a holiday like an ordinary innocent civilian. This blurs the unofficial line of the types of people who can be used as political prisoners. Maybe we all now need to be more wary of ensuring the UK is not in debt to the country we are visiting. Even the arbitrary confinement of an innocent British mother still leaves the Government wary to pay up, leaving us to believe that money really is worth more than human lives and that nowadays, anyone can be used as a political bargaining chip.