The feature included images of a pay stub from her former employer, the BBC World Service Trust, and an email in which Zaghari-Ratcliffe referenced that organization’s program to train independent journalists from places like Iran and Afghanistan. These materials were highlighted to lend credence to the Iranian regime’s claim that the 38-year-old woman had been employed to train journalists in the dissemination of information unfavorable to the regime. Specifically, authorities accused Zaghari-Ratcliffe of being a leading member of an infiltration network whose goal is the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic government in Tehran.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly spearheading efforts to expand the charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She has already been sentenced to five years in prison and new charges of “spreading propaganda,” based on the same case file, could add a further 16 years to her sentence. The recent state media broadcasts give no indication of the presence of new evidence against the defendant. Neither the aforementioned pay stub nor email establish links to British media that had not already been acknowledged by Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her defenders.
The BBC World Service Trust is a separate, charitable arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and it is not directly affiliated with the BBC’s Persian Service, which has been banned in the Islamic Republic and made subject to penalties and reprisals by regime authorities. Furthermore, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has long since stopped working for the BBC and was employed instead by the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the time of her arrest, another charitable organization that operates separately from its media affiliate, Reuters News Agency.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s emailed mention of the “ZigZag Academy” training project does not constitute evidence that she materially contributed to that project, notwithstanding a careless remark by UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson earlier this month which seemed to agree with Tehran’s position that she had been “training journalists” just prior to her arrest. The BBC maintains that its former employee never had direct, professional contact with journalists. And Thomson Reuters has defended her in similar terms, affirming that her role in the organization was a manager of charitable projects and that there was no professional basis for her trip to Iran. Indeed, Thomson Reuters does not undertake projects in the Islamic Republic at all.
Regardless of these depictions of the true nature of her work, the Iranian judiciary has apparently latched onto Johnson’s off-hand remarks, which were contradicted by other British officials and were quickly retracted, to justify its continued efforts to intensify punitive measures against the dual national. Radio Free Europe suggested a direct link between Johnson’s comments and the new charges in a report last week that indicated a new trial date had been set in the case. Certainly, those comments were utilized in an unscheduled hearing that took place just three days later, in which Zaghari-Ratcliffe was told to sign the new charge sheet without the presence of a lawyer.
According to RFE, Zaghari-Ratcliffe will face a new trial on December 10, pending any further action that might be taken by the British government to secure her release or compel the Iranian government to grant clemency.
Tehran at War with Western Media
Earlier this month, CNN reported upon communications between the UK’s Foreign Office and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British husband Richard Ratcliffe. It quoted Boris Johnson as saying that the government would leave “no stone unturned” in its efforts to resolve her case. However, it also indicated that the Foreign Office had shown reluctance to provide Zaghari-Ratcliffe with diplomatic protection. In a news conference, Mr. Ratcliffe allegedly conveyed the government’s position on the matter:
“Diplomatic protection is, in essence, when a state like Britain decides that Nazanin was being treated badly because she is British, and she is entitled to be protected as an extension of the British state. It is not unprecedented, but it is a big step. I said I thought it would be important and helpful. The Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office expressed reservations, and we agreed that there are some questions that we have sent from the lawyers.”
But while these matters may remain unresolved within the UK, they appear to be less so in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although the facts of the case contradict the notion that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was operating as a journalist or other media figure, it is nonetheless clear that Iranian authorities either believe her to have filled this role or are insincerely presenting her as having done so. In either case, this justifies the regime’s effort to include her in a broader crackdown on foreign-linked media, and that crackdown entails deliberate mistreatment and apparently arbitrary punishment.
Last month, it was widely reported that Tehran had banned current and former employees and contributors of BBC Persian from conducting any financial transactions in Iran or from leaving the country if they currently reside there. At the time, the action was the latest indication of Iran’s perception of those contributors as an “extension of the British state”.
Indeed, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reported on November 16 that an Iranian media outlet linked to the Revolutionary Guards had proclaimed Iran to be engaged in an “ongoing soft war” with Britain, adding that British-affiliated journalists should be considered foot soldiers in that war. To the extent that Tehran considers Zaghari-Ratcliffe an agent of British media, it evidently regards her also as a sort of enemy combatant and as subject to treatment along those lines.
The same is apparently true of anyone with links to foreign media, and perhaps also to any foreign nationals, full stop. The Los Angeles Times report on Iranian media broadcasts about Zaghari-Ratcliffe also indicated that similar propaganda had been disseminated regarding an American citizen, Xiyue Wang, who is also serving a prison sentence in Iran on the basis of vague and unsubstantiated national security charges.
Wang was arrested in August of last year on the basis of his having scanned thousands of pages of documents as part of his work toward a doctoral dissertation on the Qajar dynasty, which he had been pursuing at Princeton University. Such document collection is typical of academic work, but Iranian authorities portrayed it as evidence of his gathering information for the US government.
The recent propaganda broadcasts regarding his case included footage of him speaking to the camera in an emotional state and making general statements that vaguely reflect the regime’s position on his motives. “About Iran in that regard,” he said, “the more knowledge the United States possesses about Iran, the better for its policy toward Iran. There is no doubt about it. It is quite obvious.”
By treating Wang, Zaghari-Ratlcliffe, and others as if they are foreign agents, the Iranian regime may be not only justifying the arrests but also inflating the perceived importance of the prisoners as part of a bid to encourage concessions from the corresponding Western governments. Critics of the Islamic Republic have frequently described such prisoners as hostages and suggested that the Iranians were eager to leverage them for prisoner exchanges, ransom payments, or other such agreements.
These criticisms have seized upon accounts of the release of four Americans from Iran at the start of 2016, when the Obama administration agreed to release or drop charges against 21 Iranians, as well as arranging the delivery of 400 million dollars in cash, allegedly as part of the repayment of a decades-old debt. Now, the British government has opened itself up to accusations that it is pursuing a similar scheme to use outstanding debt as a mask for the payment of ransom.
Although the UK government remains wary of offering diplomatic protection to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, it is considering the payment of approximately 530 million dollars, and many have suggested that Iran’s recent propaganda broadcasts were aimed at encouraging this move and even sparking discussion of another such move from the US. In addition to Wang, at least three other American citizens and one permanent resident are currently being held in Iranian jails.
These moves will certainly face pressure from Western policymakers who are concerned over what might be financed by a debt repayment-cum-ransom. In recent remarks to the House of Commons, British Member of Parliament Tom Tungendhat called attention to both hostage-taking and other Iranian misbehavior to support the argument that the UK has a “failed Iran policy.” Buzzfeed quoted him as saying, “We have a capital in Tehran that is taking British hostages, developing missiles, threatening its neighbours, destabilising the region – and our policy is what? We have none.”
These remarks were largely directed at Boris Johnson, who was in attendance and will certainly continue to face similar pressure from within the UK government. At the same time, though, he will also face pressure from the public to quickly secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. Many of her supporters assembled in London for a rally on Saturday where speakers including actress Emma Thomson reiterated the message that the government had not been doing enough on this case.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself addressed the crowd via telephone, according to the Associated Press. “I’m so grateful for everybody’s support and love,” she said.