Political pawns in the Iran-UK game of chess

Political pawns in the Iran-UK game of chess
Comment: The UK government must put human rights above all else in the case of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being used as a political pawn, argues Sophia Akram.
6 min read
15 Jul, 2016
Not one UK minister has condemned Iran's arbitrary detainment of Nazanin [Getty]

On 3 April 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was stopped and detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while trying to leave Iran after a family holiday. A seemingly innocent trip, Nazanin wanted to introduce her two-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to her grandparents.

However, the pair were separated, Nazanin was kept in solitary confinement while Gabriella had her British passport confiscated. One hundred days on, Nazanin remains in detention, having been moved out of solitary; Gabrielle is with her grandparents; and both are in Iran while Nazanin's husband, Richard has to play the waiting game in the UK.

No charges and no representation

The staggering thing about Nazanin's case, which sadly is not unique, is that the authorities, in this case the Revolutionary Guard, never disclosed the reason for her detention and did not formally arrest her.

Nazanin's husband Richard has been seeking assistance from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and his MP, Tulip Siddiq, has been involved throughout. However, the support provided has been essentially cursory and there is a limited amount at the consular level that can be done.

Iran does not recognise dual nationals (Nazanin has both an Iranian and British passport) so dealing with Iran is a sensitive issue. The FCO has essentially advised that policy dictates they would not intervene in the case of a dual national, denying Nazanin the basic protection afforded to other British citizens.

Other cases, such as that of Kamal Faroughi, another British-Iranian arrested in Iran, saw David Cameron personally intervene and raise the issue with the President.

At the very least, British ministers should condemn Iran for this action, as so far, none of them have done so. This amounts to allowing Nazanin to stand in a political black hole, so as not to upset diplomatic relations.

Arbitrary detention

Several weeks ago accusations in the press emerged of her attempting a "soft overthrow" of the Iranian government. This was propaganda, which was later confirmed to her family in Iran.

On many occasions, including on 6 May 2016 and 5 June 2016, officials claimed that Nazanin would be released, only for them to apparently change their mind. No information has been provided to the family and Nazanin is unable to communicate anything of how she is being treated.

The FCO has essentially advised that policy dictates they would not intervene in the case of a dual national

However, a conspicuous request from Nazanin's interrogators basically told the family that they could and would be willing to drop the case at any time: It was up to Richard to pressure the British government to reach an agreement - an agreement they said would be understood by those in charge.

If they did understand, the FCO at least did not divulge any details but what is clearer now, is that Nazanin's is a case of arbitrary detention.

Iran's complex geopolitical dynamics and rule of law

Iran's record of arbitrary detention and acquisition of foreign nationals has received substantial exposure.

Nazanin and Kamal are two out of three European citizens, including Homa Hoodfar who have been held in Iran, and the use of foreigners as political pawns is also nothing new.

Earlier this year, three American prisoners: Jason Rezaian, Saeed Abiding and Amer Hekmati, were released from prison in Iran but in exchange, the US had offered clemency to seven Iranians on charges in the US for breaking sanctions.

This amounts to allowing Nazanin to stand in a political black hole, so as not to upset diplomatic relations

This was a high profile case but other prisoner swaps have been known. In addition to releasing Iranian prisoners, there may be other objectives behind detaining foreign nationals. Although unconfirmed, some have cited the extortion of money or potentially the unfreezing of assets.

Such political chess moves are unlikely to be made at the presidential level on Iran's side, however. Rather it is likely to be a combination of the judiciary, intelligence service and office of the Supreme Leader who are pulling the strings.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh explained this in his column for pan Arab media site Al Arabiya:

the judicial system, informed by the intelligence agency, closely monitors Iran's relations with other nations and Tehran's everyday politics. Therefore, although it appears that these three pillars of government act separately, there exists no genuine separation of power among Iran's judicial, legislative and executive branches.

This suggests that when a foreigner is arrested, Iran's relations with the prisoner's country become the major platform through which the judiciary and intelligence agency make decisions and direct the outcome of the case. As such, evidence often does not play a role, hence why these cases are often conducted in secret or behind the scenes. Forced confessions and questionable methods of interrogation are common."

The use of foreigners as political pawns is also nothing new

The nature of any agreement if one exists in Nazanin's case is unknown but the UK Government have shown no intention of considering one either.

In the past the UK and Iran had difficult relations, with the UK along with her allies, firmly condemning Iran's nuclear development programme and subjecting them to sanctions.

Today, however, and since the inauguration of Ahmedinajad's successor, President Hassan Rouhani, relations have "warmed", although remain fragile as Iran remains critical of UK ally, Saudi Arabia, and is sensitive to judgment against its own human rights record.

The UK has re-established its diplomatic presence in Iran however, and is keen to trade, despite facing obstacles from the US.

The UK, however, must not prioritise trade over human rights

The UK, however, must not prioritise trade over human rights and pandering to deals means that foreign nationals, particularly with Iranian roots and dual nationality, pay the price and will always be vulnerable.

One hundred days is quite enough, and Richard delivered a letter to Downing Street on 12 July to ask the Prime Minister to intervene and consider Nazanin's plight as an absolute priority. He says,

"As the politics of Brexit calm down, I hope that after 100 days British political leadership is again able to focus on Nazanin's and Gabriella's situation and solve it before another 100 days pass."

Richard is also organising a petition, which he will present to Downing Street once it has attained 1 million signatures.

Britain must condemn the actions of Iran, in this case of its own citizen being held in arbitrary detention, and human rights must be prioritised ahead of all other considerations.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.