By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, multiple Western media outlets published commentaries on the three-year anniversary of the arrest of British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zagahri-Ratcliffe by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The incident was only one in a series of politically-motivated arrests of individuals with either citizenship in a Western nation or some other significant connection to countries described as “enemies” by hardline Iranian officials.
In his Washington Post article on the subject, Jason Rezaian, himself a former political prisoner, states that it “seems as though there [has been] a new case every month” since he was released from Iran along with four other hostages in January 2016. But he also describes the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case as being “harder than the rest for me to stomach,” owing to the fact that she was arrested along with her daughter, who was then not yet two years old, after a visit to their Iranian family.
The young child, Gabriella, has since remained in the custody of her grandparents, unable to return to her father in England. Nazanin herself is currently serving a five year sentence on charges for which no meaningful evidence was publicly presented. Rezaian specifically elected not to report the charges that were levied against her, saying that “to do so lends a measure of credibility — however faint — to Iran’s insistence that this is a domestic judicial matter.”
Indeed, the Iranian judiciary has a long history of insisting upon its sole authority over cases involving dual nationals, regardless of the circumstances of their arrest. The Islamic Republic does not recognize the principle of dual nationality and considers all native-born Iranians to be citizens only of that country, even after returning from long periods of residence abroad. As a result, dual nationals like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are denied consular assistance despite often being maligned as foreign assets in Iranian state media.
This very action was taken in January of this year, in the form of a documentary special which included secretly recorded footage of the Iranian-British woman’s arrest, along with a series of unsubstantiated accusations. As it was reported at the time, the decision to air this footage may have related either to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s announcement of a hunger strike, or the British government’s move to offer her diplomatic protection, or both.
For many of the prisoner’s advocates in the United Kingdom, this diplomatic protection was far too late in coming. An article in the Independent by fellow Iranian-British dual national Daren Nair describes it as “a formal recognition by our government that Nazanin’s treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates this to a formal state to state issue.” But Nair also underscores the fact that public pressure on the British government was necessary to generate that recognition.
This is a sentiment that is repeated in the Washington Post, where Rezaian writes, “We assumed that our elected officials could generally be counted on to protect us from harm at the hands of foreign powers. That assumption of safety, though, seems to diminish with every fresh case.” But Rezaian goes on to credit Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, with initiating change and recognizing “the full insidiousness of the problem of state-sponsored hostage-taking.”
At the same time, Nair’s commentary suggests that the shift in UK government policy may have been the result of citizen petitions and various other activist measures calling for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. Furthermore, that same article expresses concern over the possibility that the UK may still let up pressure on the Islamic Republic, if it once again finds reason to privilege trade deals ahead of the well-being of British citizens abroad.
This danger may be diminishing, however, in the face of escalating tensions between Iran and the Western world. An assertive shift in US policy under the Trump administration has certainly played a leading role in building these tensions, but Iran has done itself no favors by rejecting almost all international standards for its behavior on the world stage.
This defiance has been exhibited, for instance, in February’s lapsed deadline for Iranian compliance with the anti-money laundering rules of the Financial Action Task Force, and in the ongoing Iranian missile tests that recently yielded a joint letter of complaint to the United Nations by the UK, France, and Germany.
This European pressure over Iran’s provocative military buildup was both referenced and rejected by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a series of tweets that were highlighted by Fars News Agency. This condemnation of Western pressure coincided with remarks that Zarif delivered via the website of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in which he taunted the European Union over its supposed unwillingness to push back against the US sanctions that were re-imposed last May after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, leaving the three above-mentioned European nations to enforce it alongside Russia and China.
Zarif’s remarks effectively dismissed the “special purpose vehicle” for Iranian transactions that was set up by the Europeans recently but has not actually become functional. The Iranian Foreign Minister stated that the EU was “incapable” of bypassing US sanctions and also that the Iranian regime is focusing on its eastern allies and has “no hopes” for meaningful economic partnerships in the West.
If European policymakers take these statements seriously, they may see even less incentive for pursuing Iranian trade deals, especially when those deals represent neglect for the harm being done to Western nationals in Iran, and to other victims of Tehran’s well-known violations of human rights.
Such violations continue to make international headlines, as Iran remains under scrutiny from a variety of activists and professionals, including the current UN special rapporteur on human rights in the country, Javaid Rehman. His first report was presented to the international body on March 11 and affirmed a worsening pattern of politically-motivated arrests, of which Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is only one of many victims.
As EA Worldview emphasized on March 25, Iran has steadfastly refused to cooperate with this and other special rapporteurs, or to grant them access to the country. Nevertheless, the regime insisted that the report in question constitutes an “unjustified and illegal action,” “political trickery,” and “clear evidence of the evil and hegemonic intentions of those who sponsor this scandalous theater.”
While such statements may be well-received among hardline supporters of the theocratic system, they otherwise serve to remind the international community of Tehran’s fundamental unwillingness to listen to good-faith criticisms of its human rights record. And this in turn underscores Jason Rezaian’s observation that concerned individuals “shouldn’t expect that regime to suddenly do the right thing” on its own, but must keep up pressure for the sake of compelling it to recognize the world’s demands.