Richard Ratcliffe went public with the story of his wife’s arrest sometime after it occurred on April 3 as she was preparing to leave Iran after having taken her two-year-old daughter Gabriella on a visit to her family. The child’s passport was confiscated at the time of her mother’s arrest, and she is now in the care of her Iranian grandparents, unable to return to her father in the UK. Ratcliffe initially remained silent, but grew frustrated with the lack of progress on the case in Iran and the lack of response from the British government, which has still not publicly called for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.
The Telegraph report notes that Ratcliffe believes his wife is being held as a bargaining chip in diplomatic disputes between Iran and the UK. And The Guardian clarifies that he has cited an outstanding 500 million pound debt over a cancelled arms sale as the likely focus of that dispute. It is easy to imagine how he came to this conclusion, considering that a similar debt was bound up with the release of four imprisoned Americans last January, at the time of the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Critics in the US Congress have accused the Obama administration of paying a 1.7 billion dollar “ransom” for that release, ostensibly in the form of the settlement of an arms sale debt dating back to before the Islamic revolution. The imprisoned Americans were reportedly held on the runway in Iran until it was confirmed that another plane containing more than half the money in cash was in the air. Many critics have alleged that this would encourage the Iranians to treat more Western nationals as hostages, and Richard Ratcliffe appears to have adopted this line of thinking.
However, the recognized pattern of Iranian hostage-taking is only one aspect of the circumstances surrounding the Zaghari-Ratcliffe arrest. Another is the ideological attack on supposed Western influences and persons with dual nationality. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is expected to be heard by an appeals court on Wednesday, and her advocates are hopeful that a more explicit account of the charges against her will be provided at that time. But up until now, those charges have been kept secret, and the Iranian judiciary has only stated that they believe she sought the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic.
In all likelihood, there is no evidence for this conclusion other than Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British nationality. And as The Telegraph notes, she is one of at least four Britons currently being held in Iranian prisons. Multiple Americans are also serving sentences on vague national security charges. They include the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, his elderly father Baquer, and a prospective graduate student, Robin Shahini, who had been residing for many years in San Diego before being arrested on a trip to visit family in Iran, much like Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Various human rights groups and political organizations such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran have alleged that the arrests of dual nationals and persons with connections in the West are accelerating. But Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight is familiar to large numbers of dual nationals who have come under scrutiny or received severe punishment in Iran for things that seem perfectly natural in those people’s alternative cultural circumstances.
This phenomenon was discussed on Monday in an article at the Daily Beast which profiled the American-Iranian fashion designer Tala Raassi, whose family returned with her in Iran as a young child after she had been born in the US. Though not obviously targeted for her American citizenship, Raassi did face trouble in 1998 stemming from her affinity for American culture and her association with young Iranians who held progressive social views. Her arrest came in the context of a raid on a mixed-gender party where American music was being played. Comingling of unmarried and unrelated men and women is illegal in Iran and there were numerous large-scale raids resulting in the flogging of arrestees in 2016 alone.
The Daily Beast notes that flogging was the punishment for Raassi, as well, along with five days in jail during which time she heard people being tortured and women being raped. Iranian approaches to criminal justice have not become more moderate in the ensuing 20 years. Political prisoners like the various dual nationals being held captive today continue to report routine beatings and psychological torture. The country also performs punitive amputations and carries out death sentences irrespective of the international standards for the most serious crimes. In 2015 alone, nearly 1,000 Iranians were put to death, mostly for nonviolent drug offenses. And the figures for 2016 are expected to let Iran retain its rank as the country with the highest per capita rate of executions in the world.
These trends can reasonably be connected to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in the sense that her prosecution also appears to be an instance of the clerical government enforcing certain hardline attitudes about Western culture, Islam, women, and so on. Indeed, the sense of escalating enforcement is corroborated by the fact that some prominent Iranian officials are explicitly calling for more rigorous punishments or more drastic solutions to perceived social problems.
On Monday, Agence-France Presse reported that Tehran Deputy Provincial Governor Siavash Shahrivar had called for the sterilization of homeless drug addicts and women who work in the sex trade. Previously, Vice President for Women’s Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi had apparently made the same recommendations, suggesting that “specific plans for sterilization of homeless women” should be “proposed and reviewed by the Health Ministry.”
Shahrivar’s remarks were particularly shocking to progressive-minded Iranians in light of their proximity to the widespread dissemination of photographs of homeless men and women sleeping in open graves. The revelation of this problem prompted widespread outrage and a public response from supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani. But the National Council of Resistance of Iran was quick to report that instead of addressing the problem, security agencies raided the homeless encampments and forced the residents into less visible locations.
This is apparently typical of government responses to actual and potential sources of public outcry. In the case of the homeless grave-sleepers, the regime has attempted to diminish the visibility of the situation after the fact, while in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s and others’ arbitrary arrests, state media has minimized reporting from the beginning in order to promote unsubstantiated claims about vague security threats.
But not all cases of political imprisonment are able to maintain such a veil of secrecy, and some result in activism among the Iranian public. A notable example of this emerged on Monday when Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty was among the outlets to report that hundreds of people had assembled outside of Evin Prison to protest the continued detention of Arash Sadeghi, an activist who has been on a hunger strike for more than 70 days, since his wife was arrested on the basis of an unpublished fictional short story that was found when her residence was raided.