Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, called on his country to consider imposing “Magnitsky”-style sanctions on Tehran over his wife’s ongoing arrest.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, meanwhile, said Tehran’s treatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe “amounts to torture”.
In remarks to the BBC, he said Iran was using her in “a cat-and-mouse game” for diplomatic leverage, after she was sentenced to prison again.
“Nazanin is held unlawfully, in my view, as a matter of international law. I think she's being treated in the most abusive, tortuous way,” he added.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Richard Ratcliffe criticized the British government’s “reluctance” to impose consequences on the Iranian authorities for their hostage taking.
An Iranian court sentenced Nazanin last week to another year in jail followed by a one year travel ban, just weeks after she finished a prior five-year sentence, a decision Britain called “inhumane”.
When she was freed from house arrest last month at the end of a five-year sentence for plotting to “overthrow Iran's government", a charge she categorically denies, her family had hoped she could finally come home to London. But she was ordered back into court last Monday to face new charges of “propaganda activities” against the Iranian government.
Ratcliffe maintains his wife is being used as a bargaining chip by Tehran in a dispute with the UK over an unpaid debt from the 1970s related to a military contract, and as leverage in talks over the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Worst case scenario
The legal maximum for spreading propaganda against the regime is one year. By adding a travel ban they have doubled it to two years. And running it after the end of Nazanin's case allows them to separate it out, so while she is currently stuck in Iran, the clock may not yet have started ticking, Ratcliffe told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“If they draw out the legal process, the new worst case scenario could be the second half of 2023,” he added.
“Of course that is not really the worst case scenario. If they have invented two court cases, they can easily invent a third,” he lamented.
“What Iran is really signaling with this conviction is that Nazanin faces an open-ended detention until the debt is paid. That is a very harsh shift to our horizons,” he said.
“I don't know if it is naivety or complacency, but I remember warning the Foreign Office back in September when we had a big strategy meeting, that if they let Nazanin's case run to the end of her sentence, then I expected the Revolutionary Guards would feel honor bound to reopen the second case and give her another couple of years,” continued Ratcliffe.
“In reality, the debt case was postponed two times - in October and then in April, and that is exactly what happened - Nazanin is a prisoner for two more years,” he noted.
“I was really cross with them last week when they agreed to the postponement. I told the government that we would get the fallout - it was inevitable,” he revealed.
More of the same
“I watched closely the Minister's statements to Parliament (last week) during the Urgent Question on Nazanin to see what the Government's plan is now. It felt like more of the same - raising her case, and a real reluctance to impose any consequences on the Iranian authorities for their hostage taking,” Ratcliffe said.
“They need to resolve the debt so that Iran stops taking more people, and lets those like Nazanin go. The problem is still growing,” he warned.
“But they really do need to look at how they are incentivizing or disincentivizing hostage taking. The Minister said in Parliament a number of times that the UK does not accept its citizens being used as diplomatic leverage, often to deflect questions asked about the debt.”
“But in reality, that is exactly what it is doing - it has accepted Nazanin being held hostage for more than five years. And what has it done about it? No more than used some strong words.”
“So I think the full range of legal measures, including things like Magnitsky sanctions, should be considered at this point,” urged Ratcliffe.
“Clearly Nazanin is a bargaining chip, so anything that happens to her is by definition an act of negotiation. They don't want to hold onto Nazanin for two years, they just want their money. But they are just signaling that they are prepared to hold her if the money doesn't come,” he added.
“I think the debt has become connected to the nuclear deal (JCPOA) negotiations. I think this is probably the choice of both governments, rather than say the IRGC,” he remarked to Asharq Al-Awsat.
“But the conviction is obviously also a statement of force by the IRGC and the judiciary, signaling they have their own view and ability to act,” he noted. “One of risks of the JCPOA-first strategy is that the negotiations are handled by Iran's government, but the hostages are held ultimately by the IRGC, and at this point in Iran's election cycle, they are on different sides. So it is not a recipe for a solution that is simple or quick.”
“Nazanin has not yet been summoned for prison. I think it is unlikely she will be for a couple of weeks, though has been told nothing new,” Ratcliffe said.
“Since the sentence, she has become increasingly angry - at the brazen unfairness of the new sentence, and the failure of the UK to protect her. So I think she is minded that we will need to do something,” he revealed.
“My daughter Gabriella's big news is that she lost her first tooth, and was at least still able to show Nazanin on Skype. So it is proof that life goes on,” he added.
“Keeping us in the light is the best way to keep Nazanin safe. The fact that so many people follow our story means that there is a limit to what can happen to Nazanin. It's unknown corners of solitary confinement where the worst abuse happens. So I am grateful for everyone who cares.”
Commenting on the £400m Iran is asking the UK to pay, a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We continue to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case and will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing.”
The UK does not accept Iran detaining dual British nationals as diplomatic leverage, and is committed to securing the immediate and permanent release of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals in Iran.