News : Human rights

Western Nationals May Face Worse Pressure in Iran as Tensions Grow in the Gulf

In the midst of escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, there is substantial concern over the possibility that Iran will take out its frustrations with the West on the dozen or so dual nationals that are known to be held captive in the Islamic Republic, on spurious charges. In fact, in light of reports indicating, for instance, that the British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been refused contact with her family, there is some concern that this sort of retaliation has already begun.

Of course, it is widely believed that Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others like her have been taken captive by hardline Iranian authorities solely because of their foreign citizenship or past association with Western entities that are deemed questionable by the clerical regime. In Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, the relevant association is the British Broadcasting Corporation.

No other evidence was presented publicly to corroborate the accusation that she was one of the leaders of an infiltration network working toward the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic system. Furthermore, her association with the BBC did not involve any reporting work or projects inside Iran, and at the time when she made the family visit which led to her arrest in April 2016, she was no longer working for the BBC’s charitable wing but for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, another charitable organization which does no work in the Islamic Republic.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now serving a five-year sentence for “acting against national security.” But this is a significantly lighter sentence than that which has been handed down on several other dual and foreign nationals, based on equally questionable accusations of spying and similar instances of guilt by association. American citizen Xiyue Wang has been sentenced to 10 years inside Iran’s notoriously harsh prison system, as has the British permanent resident Aras Amiri.

Amiri’s fiancé James Tyson appeared on the BBC on Wednesday to emphasize his belief that Amiri had been taken hostage as a means of exerting pressure on the British government. The television appearance was spurred by the report that, just days earlier, her conviction for “forming and organizing a network for the purpose of overthrowing the Islamic Republic” was upheld, despite the lack of evidence leading to that initial conviction and subsequent sentencing.

When challenged by Amiri’s defense attorney, the preliminary court reportedly either could not or would not identify the network that she supposedly organized. As with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian regime’s narrative about Amiri was likely derived in large part from fundamentally innocent Western associations. Amiri is an employee of the British Council, which describes itself as “the United Kingdom’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities,” but this had no bearing on her activities in Iran, where she was visiting her ailing grandmother at the time of her arrest in March 2018.

Nevertheless, the Iranian judiciary’s paranoia over any Western government associations is evidently so severe that it will acknowledge no basis for an appeal of the initial verdict in Amiri’s case. Her cousin Mohsen Omrani explained to the press that such an appeal is easy for the judiciary to avoid: “In order to expedite cases, [Judiciary Chief] Ebrahim Raisi has decided that there is no longer a need for the Appeals Court to hold hearings.” Thus, Amiri’s sentence was summarily upheld before she or her attorney could formally object to the apparent lack of evidence in the first trial.

Furthermore, according her fiancé, Amiri was not even informed of her sentence until after it had already been publicly announced. In his BBC interview, Tyson cited this fact as evidence for his conclusion that the Iranian government’s approach to this and similar cases has been to “get the maximum kind of impact that they could” from Amiri’s supporters, the United Kingdom, and the Western world in general.

If that strategy has informed the judiciary’s decision to truncate the appeals process for Aras Amiri, it may have also informed the decision to arbitrarily limit Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s contact with the outside world following a hunger strike that led to her being briefly transferred to hospital. The hunger strike was motivated in part by authorities’ prior refusal to allow her to receive treatment for worsening health concerns. Yet now that she has at least been examined by qualified medical professionals, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is apparently being subjected to an alternative form of extrajudicial punishment and pressure.

According to her husband Richard Ratcliffe, the prisoner is now unable to make any phone calls to her home in London, and visits from her five-year-old daughter have been reduced from multiple times a week to once a month. The child, Gabriella, was only two years old when she traveled to Iran with her mother. Her passport was confiscated at the time of the arrest and Gabriella was left in the care of her maternal grandparents, unable to leave Iran and return to her father in the UK.

The child has reportedly lost the ability to communicate in English, and both her mother and father have struggled with their mental health as a result of the forcible, three-year separation of their family. In July, Zaghari-Ratcliffe expressed concern that she would be forgotten by the British government or the international community as a whole, due to the broadening media emphasis on Iran-US tensions in the Persian Gulf. But if the recent pressures that she, Amiri, and others have faced can be connected to those tensions, than the ongoing crisis may ultimately bring more attention to her case, but also more pain.