In April 2016, an Iranian-British charity worker named Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken into custody and accused of playing a leading role in a conspiracy to culturally infiltrate the Islamic Republic and facilitate the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic. No meaningful evidence was cited to support the allegation, and it is widely believed that she was targeted on the basis of her British citizenship and her former affiliation with the British Broadcasting Corporation, even though the affiliation was with the organization’s charitable wing and she had no role in the BBC Persian Service, which is banned inside Iran.
The international profile for this case steadily grew over the past three years, especially when the British government finally extended formal diplomatic protection to the dual national earlier this year, clearly making her case a consular matter. This move was met with outrage by Tehran, which insisted that her case would only be complicated as a result. Even more recently, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has apparently come under additional pressure from regime authorities, with visits from her young daughter being severely limited and calls between her and her British husband being cut off altogether.
It is not clear whether these gestures are directed against the prisoner in retaliation for her own hunger strikes and efforts to protest her previous treatment, or whether they are directed against the British government in retaliation for its efforts to intercede in the case or to move its foreign policy in the direction of the American strategy of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. Of course, there is a strong possibility that Tehran’s motivations stem from some combination of these factors.
While it would not be correct to say that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being treated fairly at an earlier stage of her imprisonment, it does bear noting that she received a prison term that is half as long as that received by several Americans during the same timeframe, despite the charges against each individual being roughly the same. Whereas Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving a five-year prison sentence, the American citizen Xiyue Wang is serving 10 years. In the case of Wang, the basis for his charges of espionage is nothing other than the research he had conducted in Iranian public libraries as part of his graduate research.
A trend toward similar sentencing of British nationals began last year with the arrest of Aras Amiri, an employee of the British Council who was visiting relatives. The circumstances of her arrest were much the same as in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and both women’s professional relationships played key roles in the allegations and convictions even though neither such role played out inside the Islamic Republic. Last week, it was widely reported that Amiri had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on the basis of “cultural infiltration,” and that efforts to appeal the ruling had been rejected without a hearing.
Now, another dual citizen of the United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic has received an equivalent sentence, based on more specific charges of spying for Israel. Additionally, Anousheh Ashouri was given two years for allegedly receiving 36,000 dollars in illicit funds and was ordered to pay the same amount as a fine to the Iranian government. Tehran also promoted the notion of a broader Israeli conspiracy by announcing this sentence alongside a similar 10-year sentence for an Iranian national, Ali Johari, who was described as having “widespread connections with Mossad… and meeting with various elements linked to the Zionists.”
But as with previous arrests related to supposed links to Iran’s “enemies,” publicly-available evidence for the allegations is sparse. In each case, Tehran’s narrative is made more questionable by virtue of “cultural infiltration” being referenced as if it is a form of professional espionage. In Johari’s case, international reporting gives the impression that widespread foreign travel may have been sufficient in itself to justify charges of espionage. And this is even without his holding citizenship or permanent resident status in any nation that Iran considers “hostile.”
A similar case could be made for Kiumars Marzban, who was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison, of which he is expected to serve 11, for an array of charges that have no obvious connection to any criminal activity. Marzban’s home in Iran was raided by the IRGC in August 2018, only about a year after he returned from living abroad for a number of years, where he worked in various media in places such as Malaysia. Barring the release of information confirming criminal activity, Marzban’s case may prove to be an example of Iranian hardliners’ paranoia about all foreign affiliations – a paranoia that is of course made stronger when those affiliations involve close allies of the United States.