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Boris Johnson’s career as UK foreign secretary could rest with Iran’s judiciary and its treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The 39-year-old Iranian-British charity worker has been in detention since April 2016. She has been held in solitary confinement, subject to lengthy interrogations and denied regular access to her young daughter. She was sentenced to five years in prison after a closed trial for allegedly trying to overthrow the government — claims that she and her family deny.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is one of what the Reuters news agency estimates to be 30 Iranians with US or European nationalities that have been jailed by Tehran in the past two years, mostly on spying charges. Because their other nationalities are not recognised by Tehran, they have no consular representation and have become pawns in a power struggle between the country’s competing political forces.
Mr Johnson waded into this battle last week when he wrongly told MPs that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “teaching people journalism” in Iran when she was detained. Her family and her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, insist she was on holiday.
Days later Zaghari-Ratcliffe was back in court and told she could face new charges of spreading propaganda against the regime. It is unclear whether the court appearance was directly related to Mr Johnson’s statement; last month she was warned that she could be facing new charges that could see her sentence extended by 16 years.
Boris Johnson addresses the Commons over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on Tuesday © Reuters
Mr Johnson eventually said he was “sorry if any words of mine have been so taken out of context or so misconstrued as to cause any kind of anxiety to the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe”.
But Iran’s judiciary and state-run television, IRIB, said the foreign secretary’s statement proved their allegations against Zaghari-Ratcliffe were true. Mr Johnson’s attempt to explain his original comments were dismissed.
“Mr Johnson’s remarks may have consequences for Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe as it is not easy to take words back especially if they’re uttered by a country’s foreign secretary,” said Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, who spent more than six months in Iran’s jails for his journalistic and political activities. He cautions that the details of her case remain murky and her fate may depend on “whether she is still a relevant pawn” on Iran’s political chess board.
The reference to journalism was particularly unfortunate. Dozens of Iranian journalists have been jailed or summoned by prosecutors. Last month Tehran’s prosecutor-general, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being held for running “a BBC Persian online journalism course” in order “to spread propaganda against Iran”.
Iran’s judiciary sees the BBC Persian service — one of the corporation’s most successful foreign services — as a threat.
Mr Johnson’s comments have caused a political furore in the UK. Opposition parties and the Conservative MP Anna Soubry have called for him to be sacked immediately. Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, where Zaghari-Ratcliffe lived before her detention, told the FT: “If my constituent spends even an extra day in jail, then Boris should resign.”
Ms Siddiq criticised Mr Johnson for relying on assurances of the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has “no power” over the case.
Amnesty International holds a vigil for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe earlier in the year © WENN/Alamy
Iranian political forces are in a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle for control of who will succeed their 78-year-old Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Moderates — such as Mr Zarif — are allied to centrist president Hassan Rouhani and are pushing for political, social and economic reforms ahead of any transition; hardliners see reforms as the opening up of their country to outside forces — and fear their own loss of power.
Each of these groups uses institutions to further their aims: moderates control the government and the parliament, while hardliners control state television, the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Expatriate Iranians such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe are seen as a pawn in this struggle. For Iran’s reformists, dual nationals form a bridge with the West that could help open the country and attract foreign investment. But for regime hardliners, they are potential recruits for foreign intelligence services who want to bring an end to the Islamic regime. Their detentions are a warning.
“The arrests in general are a message to other dual nationals to keep away from Iran,” said a reform-minded Iranian analyst. “Hardliners think dual nationals should not come with their money and expertise and new culture to change Iran. Their concern is: ‘if that happens, what will happen to us?’ ”
Whoever does decide Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate may also determine the British foreign secretary’s career: if they lengthen her sentence, he is in political trouble; if they release her, his mistake may be forgotten.
The events of the past week have put paid to the Foreign Office’s hopes of resolving Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate through quiet diplomacy. Mr Johnson, who for months delegated the case to junior ministers, has now offered to meet her husband Richard for the first time since she was detained, and is set to visit Iran before the end of the year.
Until the last few days, the UK government didn’t appear willing “to give up anything” in return for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, says Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at think-tank Chatham House. Mr Johnson himself criticised the US’s habit of doing deals over detained dual nationals.
But even now it is not clear what Iran would want in exchange for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. “Is it more money? Is it more investment? It is opening up the UK to Iranian banks? It could be so many things?” says Ms Vakil.
Ms Vakil said that Mr Johnson should emphasise that detaining British citizens “is not in Iran’s interest”, particularly given current geopolitics. Britain is seeking to play the mediator between Iran and the US: Mr Johnson spent part of this week in Washington, lobbying in favour of the nuclear deal, while criticising Iran’s actions across the Middle East.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family, in Iran and the UK, have been distressed by recent developments. “Her mum physically collapsed when she saw the news bulletin,” says Ms Siddiq. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has ended an earlier hunger strike, but is still thought to be suicidal and to have only ad hoc access to her daughter. Ms Siddiq, her MP, said that Mr Johnson must meet Zaghari-Ratcliffe during his trip, and issue a full retraction and apology for his comments.