On Monday, a report in the Washington Post detailed the public measures that are being undertaken by the British Broadcasting Corporation to address the harassment faced by its journalists in Iran. The BBC Persian Service has been banned in Iran since the aftermath of the 2009 Green Movement protests, but the company estimates that its broadcasts still reach 18 million people, mostly Iranians who use illegal satellite hookups to access foreign and independent media in the heavily censored Islamic Republic.
In August, the BBC revealed that approximately 150 of its journalists and contributors had been made subject to an Iranian court order that froze their assets and prevented them from conducting transactions or inheriting property in the country. This led to the BBC making a formal complaint to the United Nations in October. And now, for the first time, BBC journalists will be sharing their personal experiences with the international community, following reports that the harassment has worsened in the months since the initial complaint.
Plans are already in place for some such journalists to address the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council, and other actions are expected to follow. In a statement regarding this decision, BBC Director General Tony Hall noted, “We are not the only media organization to have been harassed or forced to compromise when dealing with Iran. In truth, this story is much wider: it is a story about fundamental human rights.”
The Iranian regime is famously paranoid about foreign “infiltration,” be it political, economic, or cultural in nature. And this paranoia has apparently intensified in recent years, following the opening of nuclear negotiations between six world powers and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. While those negotiations were at their peak, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei barred his subordinates from negotiating with the West over any other matters, and this position has been reiterated on many subsequent occasions by him, Rouhani, and other officials, as when they have rejected the notion of any restrictions on ballistic missiles that are theoretically capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
This commitment to non-cooperation has been cited as a possible motivating factor in the various arrests of Western nationals during the negotiations and after their conclusion in the summer of 2015. Those arrests have coincided with intensified restrictions on media, and one of the arrestees, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, may have been targeted and accused of espionage because of her previous employment by the charitable arm of the BBC.
Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose husband is British and who holds citizenship in both Iran and the UK, was detained in April 2016, at the end of a trip to visit family in Iran along with her daughter, who was not yet two years old at the time. The child, Gabriella, has been prevented from leaving the country, and Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been sentenced to five years even though no evidence of espionage or other illegal activity has been presented to the public.
The case was once again given renewed attention on Saturday when Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe attended a rally outside the British Foreign Office to demand updates from the British government, which apparently began negotiating directly for her release only late last year. According to Agence France Presse, the head of the prison where Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held claims to have approved her for release months ago. This raises new questions as well as reinforcing the familiar claim that the Iranian government is holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a hostage in order to extract concessions from the UK on some other matter.
For Iran’s hardliners, releasing a Western national might constitute a serious blow to the regime’s prestige as a bastion of resistance to influence from Britain and the United States, especially if the release doesn’t coincide with other news that can be presented as a victory over what Tehran calls the “global arrogance.”
The danger of compromise is particularly evident in the wake of recent waves of protest in Iran, which Khamenei and other high-ranking officials have sought to dismiss as failed efforts at regime change orchestrated by foreign operatives. Khamenei has also accused the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran of functioning as the foot soldiers for these plots in the midst of the mass protests that took place in late December and much of January.
While rejecting the notion of foreign influence, the PMOI has proudly taken credit for much of the recent activism and has been issuing calls to action in recent days, in hopes of sparking a renewed uprising that would coincide with public gatherings on Tuesday in celebration of the fire festival known as Chahrshanbeh Suri.
Tehran has accordingly mobilized repressive forces to prevent or disperse such gatherings. But at the same time that institutions like the Intelligence Ministry and Revolutionary Guards were preparing for these prospective gatherings, they were already dealing with a variety of scattered protests, including labor strikes and women’s rights demonstrations.
On Thursday, police in Tehran dispersed a group of people who attempted to gather in front of the Labor Ministry building to mark International Women’s Day. Radio Free Europe reported that more than 50 people were arrested in this incident, which was only one of several high profile women’s rights protests to take place in recent weeks. On the same day, three women were filmed singing a feminist song on a Tehran subway car and the video quickly went viral on social media.
The three women appeared without their legally required headscarves, thereby connecting their protest to the “Revolution Street” demonstrations in which dozens of women have stood on top of structures in public spaces to remove their veils and hold them over their heads. These demonstrations have also been dismissed by the supreme leader and other Iranian officials as acts of infiltration by foreign powers.
On Saturday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran published excerpts from Khamenei’s speech on Women’s Day, in which he repeated this accusation. “They [enemies of Iran] spent all that money and created all that propaganda to trick a few girls into taking off their scarves,” he said, “but in the end, what they got from all that effort was small and insignificant.”
But CHRI responded to this comment by saying that it raised the question of why people are being sentenced to prison for peaceful protests that supposedly have little public impact. On Thursday, Tehran’s public prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced that one of the Revolution Street protesters, Narges Hosseini, had been sentenced to more than two years in prison by a preliminary court. The court also decided to suspend 21 months of that sentence for five years, by Dowlatabadi declared that he would fight this decision, alleging that suspended sentences are not permitted in the case of sentences for “immoral acts.”
IW published an interview with Ms. Hosseini in which she declared that she was surprised by the severity of the sentence, given that the maximum prison term for public removal of the hijab is only two months. However, she added that she had “repeatedly seen that civil activists get heavy sentences that in no way are consistent with the charges against them,” and was therefore somewhat prepared for a heavier sentence.
Hosseini also declared that regardless of the unusually long sentence, she had no regrets about participating in the Revolution Street movement, which she credits with inspiring public dialogue about the hijab and women’s rights in spite of the government’s aggressive efforts to control the media while marginalizing or discrediting the Iranian activist community.