Arms deal and sanctions trap British-Iranian mother in Tehran’s ‘hostage diplomacy’

·5-min read

The fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman detained in Tehran, is linked to an arms deal dating from the reign of deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and is another example of Iran's policy of “hostage diplomacy”. The UK has agreed to pay Iran its dues, but US sanctions present another challenge.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s life changed on April 3, 2016. A British-Iranian dual national, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested with her daughter, Gabriella, then not yet 2 years old, at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport.

An aid worker, Zaghari-Ratcliffe had travelled to Iran to visit her family for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. She was on her way back to the UK when she was arrested and accused of "plotting to overthrow the Islamic regime" – a charge she vehemently denies. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was then separated from her daughter, whose British passport was confiscated, and sent to prison.

It was the start of a long ordeal for the young mother, marked by harsh stays in solitary confinement in windowless cells, blindfolded interrogations and hunger strikes to demand medical care. In November 2016, Amnesty International raised an alert that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s severe detention conditions were driving her to contemplate suicide.

After nearly five years in prison, Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 42, who worked as a project manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, now faces charges of "spreading propaganda against the regime". The Iranian justice system has summoned her to appear on Sunday, March 14, to answer the new charges against her. Her passport has not been returned and she cannot leave to join her husband and now 6-year-old daughter, who returned to London in 2019 to start school in the UK.

On March 7, Zaghari-Ratcliffe ended her initial sentence and was allowed to remove her electronic bracelet while under house arrest. But she’s far from finished with the Iranian judicial system. According to regional experts, her fate is linked to a larger diplomatic game.

A £400 million bilateral debt

For her husband, Richard Ratcliffe – who has been tirelessly campaigning for her freedom since her arrest – his wife is a "hostage" of a sinister political game involving a debt of £400 million (464 million) owed by the UK to Iran within the framework of an arms contract signed before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iranian officials told his wife that her detention would end when London settled the infamous £400 million debt, Ratcliffe has told the British press.

"At that time, the Shah of Iran bought more than a thousand tanks [1,750 Chieftain tanks] from Britain and paid an advance because there was a lot of money in the coffers of the Iranian state," recalled François Nicoullaud, a French diplomat who served as France’s ambassador to Iran between 2001 and 2005. But after the 1979 revolution, the UK refused to honour the order.

In 2017, after years of negotiations and legal battles, Britain said it was ready to settle its bill to Tehran while denying the move had any connection with Zaghari-Ratcliffe's detention.

But that was before Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed tough sanctions under his administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy.

"The British do not deny that they have a debt. The problem is the US sanctions that prevent Britain from paying the money to Iran," Nicoullaud explained. "Poor Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe finds herself the victim of an inextricable struggle between two states."

All eyes are now on Washington, DC, where the arrival of Joe Biden as president could eventually lead to the lifting of sanctions banning bank transactions with Iran. But more than a month into his presidency, Biden has not yet launched a major initiative to return the US to the 2015 deal, a campaign promise that some fear has been put on a backbench.

Aware of the stakes, her husband has kept up the pressure on his government. It is, in my view, clearly a game of chess. She’s the pawn,” explained Ratcliffe in an interview with the New York Times last week.

‘Hostage-taking’ as a foreign policy

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is not unique. Around a dozen other foreign and dual nationals are currently trapped in the same situation. These include two French nationals, researcher Fariba Adelkhah – who was placed under house arrest in October 2020 after serving 16 months in prison – and a French tourist detained since May 2020. The latter was arrested under murky circumstances in a desert area near the Iran-Turkmenistan border while he was touring the country in a van.

While some call this phenomenon "hostage diplomacy", Nicoullaud prefers the term "hostage-taking". "It's nothing less than that. It is hostage-taking. It's a very bad Iranian habit to use quid pro quo. It started with the beginnings of the Islamic Republic in 1979, when 53 hostages from the US embassy in Tehran were held for nearly a year and a half. Since then it has been repeated, and Iran has seen that this extraordinary means of pressure has worked over the years."

One of the last hostages released, French researcher Roland Marchal, was released in March 2020 after nine months in detention. Marchal was released as part of an exchange with an Iranian engineer detained in France. The Iranian engineer, Jalal Ruhollahnejad, was detained in France and wanted by the US on charges of violating sanctions on the import of sensitive electronic systems to Iran.

This article is a translation of the original in French.