Iran hostage diplomacy: Dispute with Foreign Office over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case

A dispute has arisen between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for the last five years.

The post Iran hostage diplomacy: Dispute with Foreign Office over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case appeared first on International Observatory of Human Rights.

A dispute has arisen between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for the last five years. The FCDO has requested Mr. Ratcliffe stop publicising plans to free his wife on 7 March 2021, to avoid jeopardising her release, but Mr. Ratcliffe has rejected the advice.

What is the current situation?

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been jailed in Iran since September 2016 on alleged charges of spying and plotting to overthrow the Iranian regime. She was arrested in Tehran before her flight back to the UK, after visiting her parents. Since her imprisonment, her husband, family and friends have tirelessly campaigned for her release alongside the diplomatic efforts of the British government. She was given temporary leave from prison in March 2020, and is currently under house arrest at her parents’ house in Tehran. Nazanin faced new charges last November for allegedly “spreading propaganda against the Iranian regime”, but the Iranian courts postponed the trial over media and diplomatic pressure, letting her return to her parents’ house.

Her release on 7 March 2021 marks the end of her five-year prison sentence for the initial charges. Two weeks ago, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that he would leave “no stone unturned” in his mission to free Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but noted that the Iranian regime holds other dual nationals in arbitrary detention. He said that he had been undergoing “particularly intense discussion” with his counterpart in Iran since the summer, and that the government was pushing as hard as possible to secure her release as soon as possible.

The FCDO has urged quiet diplomacy as the best method to achieving results, but Mr. Ratcliffe, currently in London, disagreed. He wrote on Twitter: “We continue to believe that transparency is the best form of protection from abuse. We have also made clear that the government’s role is to remind the Iranian authorities that Nazanin has the UK’s protection, not to act as a messenger for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) mafia tactics and suppression.”

“If anything happens to Nazanin or her family or if she is not released to the UK on 7 March – there should be consequences. We will be discussing with the foreign secretary Dominic Raab his back-up plan,” he added.

Mr. Ratcliffe expressed his frustrations in a note sent to the FCDO after a meeting with diplomats on 29 January, saying that there was a “remarkable lack of judgement by the FCDO to allow itself to be enrolled in passing on IRGC threats to the family, and say it would be the fault of our campaigning around Nazanin’s release date if something happened to Nazanin or her family.” He claimed he has repeatedly been told by the FCDO ministers to “be quiet” about the case. “The IRGC have an infinite capacity to spot weakness and an opportunity to manipulate – it is why the UK’s weakness on diplomatic protection is so genuinely ill-advised. They sniff out every opportunity, unless you push back immediately,” Mr. Ratcliffe said.

Mr. Ratcliffe also argued that the government should describe his wife’s imprisonment as “state hostage taking”. Speaking to The Observer in December, he said that the government is not being brave enough in making this clear. This followed a Parliamentary Select Committee meeting on the matter, where the UK’s debt to Iran proved to be an issue. Iran claims the UK owes a £400 million debt for 1,500 tanks ordered by the Iranian Shah before his overthrow in 1979, which were never delivered. Despite decades going by since this occured, the debt remains a contentious issue and is significant to British-Iranian relations and the release of British dual nationals.

Speaking on the detention of dual nationals, UK Minister for the Middle East, James Cleverly MP said: “We recognise that the debt is due, and we are working to resolve this. It is a 40-year-old debt, and we are exploring options to bring this to a conclusion.” Mr. Ratcliffe is concerned that his wife will not be freed until this debt is paid. “They have no right to keep her longer, but I think by threatening a second court case, they’re threatening to hold her for as long as they need – and that’s a serious threat. They want their money back,” he said, and added:

“It’s a convenient fiction for both governments to pretend it’s true, because neither government wants to acknowledge that they’ve had a five-year standoff over an innocent person, over a government debt. Both sides look bad,” he said.

An FCDO spokesperson stated that they remain in close contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family and will continue to provide support, and “do not accept Iran detaining dual British nationals as diplomatic leverage.” Tension remains as Mr. Ratcliffe believes Iran can respond to external pressure, but the FCDO feels it is unwise to highlight the date set for her release at the risk of antagonising the regime and prompting further charges.

How should the British government approach hostage diplomacy?

With six British-Iranian dual nationals known to be imprisoned in Iran and the looming issue of the debt, the task of securing their release is challenging. In June 2019, the Dame Judith MacGregor Review on Complex Consular Cases offered insight into the FDCO’s handling of such cases and gave recommendations for improvement. The review found “no evidence of a systematic attempt to protect the bilateral relationship at the expense of the individual, although political teams were mindful of the impact, and more importantly, the effectiveness of any course of action with host countries.” It commends the work of consular teams in handling such difficult and demanding cases with dedication and resilience. However, there were areas that needed improvement, particularly in the speed of handling such cases and developing better relationships with the families of the detainees.

“Despite the high profile of this work, many people felt the FCO as a whole did not seize quickly enough the political sensitivity of these complex cases and escalate accordingly. There was also concern whether consular teams always had sufficient access to and knowledge of the criminal law systems in place in their host countries, including evaluations of the human rights situation…”

It was recommended that “The FCO should ensure its internal narrative underlines clearly to its staff the importance of consular work, especially giving due priority to cases of extreme complexity and the interconnection with its rule of law/human rights promotion.” In regards to the families of detainees, their main wishes were to be brought in more closely to work with the FCDO and given greater communication, and for the FCDO to move from seeking to “manage and contain” complex cases to developing pragmatic, clearer plans to resolve them. It was noted that there are differing views and no consensus on the right course of action for “going public”; the issue which has caused friction with Mr. Ratcliffe. The report recommended “to instill a greater sense of partnership: with the aim of sharing as much information as possible and in real time; explaining clearly and carefully when this was not possible and why: especially to clarify the difference between non-interference and permissible interventions.”

Following this, a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published in December 2020, evaluates UK-Iran relations and the FCDO’s efforts to take on board the recommendations of the MacGregor review. Titled “No prosperity without justice: the UK’s relationship with Iran,” the report concluded that the FCDO’s approach to consular disputes is “clearly not working… and that the tools used to secure the timely and unconditional release of detainees are entirely ineffectual and need revision.”

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is mentioned in the report as high-profile and demonstrating various issues. It acknowledged that although the term “hostage takers” is typically applied to individual actors and not state actors, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband and legal team have referred to her as a hostage under the definition in the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages 1983. Yet, the FCDO “has been conspicuous in its reluctance to refer to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a hostage”. It stated:

“The UK is not alone in not officially recognising the phenomenon of ‘State Hostage Taking’, but the FCDO should acknowledge that Iran’s transactional approach to diplomacy typifies a growing challenge democracies face when engaging with some autocracies. Calling ‘State Hostage Taking’ out for what it is and taking the lead in shaping a united international response would help yield additional tools to counter this behaviour.”

The recommendation is the establishment of an ad hoc committee using the UK’s position in the UN, and drafting a “complementary stand-alone addition to the 1979 Hostages Convention which defines ‘State Hostage Taking’ and prohibits its practice.” This will reaffirm international human rights obligations and streamline international law on the issue, so it can be better applied to the conduct of the Iranian regime.

The report also discussed the support for families, finding similar conclusions to the MacGregor report. The FDCO characterises their relationship with families as proactive and detailed a wide range of support available, but this opinion was not shared by Janet Daby MP, whose constituent Anoosheh Ashoori has been jailed in Iran since 2017. Ashoori is a British-Iranian retired engineer, accused of espionage and “illegitimately acquiring 33,000 euros”, and was arrested when visiting his mother in Tehran. Janet Daby MP noted inconsistencies within the FCDO on the advice offered to families, such as Mr Ashoori’s family being unaware of the eligibility for consular support until 10 months after his detention. Similar concerns were raised by Tulip Siddiq MP, of whom Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a constituent, with the FCDO being “unaccommodating” and noting the difficulties the family faced when seeking meetings with Ministers and FCDO officials in the early period of her detention.

Overall, the FCDO’s approach to securing the release of detained dual nationals is inadequate and in need of revision. Whilst Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is set to be released soon, the possibility for new charges and further detention remains, thus the FDCO should work with her family to ensure her safe return. The recommendations in the Committee report should be taken on board with a sense of urgency for the lives of other dual-nationals jailed in Iran, implementing changes to improve FDCO strategies and relations with the families.

“Iran’s human rights record and selective commitment to upholding international
law is a threat to the rules based international system generally, and a key challenge
faced when aiding detained nationals specifically. The FCDO has admirably used
international fora to exert pressure on Iran and to encourage a behaviour change,
but a country which does not respect international norms will never be embarrassed
into compliance. The time has come for a more robust approach. For its next round of
Magnitsky-style sanctions, we recommend that the FCDO prioritises building watertight cases against human rights abusers based in Iran or acting for it abroad, including those involved in the arbitrary detention of UK and dual nationals.” – Committee Report

Watch IOHR’s documentary on Iranian Hostage Diplomacy:

 

 

Photograph credit: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The post Iran hostage diplomacy: Dispute with Foreign Office over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case appeared first on International Observatory of Human Rights.

This post was originally published on International Observatory of Human Rights.


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