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Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Johnson's political pawn

Hannah Boyle explores how Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's imprisonment continues to haunt Boris Johnson

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Image Credit: Mohammad Hassanzadeh

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe continues to be held under the control of the Iranian government for the fourth year following bids from the U.K. Government to secure her release. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was detained in Iran in 2016 on spying charges, now faces an additional year in an Iranian prison after facing new charges in October 2021.

This case is not one that is new to the British public, with petitions of over 160,000 being delivered to the Iranian Embassy to demand her release. However, under this government, Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family have faced further complications.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an ongoing blot on the paper of Johnson’s legacy, having complicated her case in 2017 when as the Foreign Secretary, Johnson claimed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism” while in Iran. Widely condemned to be a false claim, it further complicated the legal battle to ensure justice in the case.

Previous policy missteps are not the only give away of Johnson’s apparent incompetence on the issue when compared with the government of Theresa May. Under May’s leadership, five different government ministers visited Iran to lobby for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, while thus far none have attended under the instruction of Johnson. While avoidance may be the easiest tactic for any politician to take, media pressure and public interest are beginning to pile on and ignorance no longer appears to be bliss.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, announced a second public hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London. Lasting from 24 October to 13 November, Ratcliffe ended in agreement with his wife to ensure at least one parent was safe for their daughter. Ratcliffe gained a high public profile while documenting his journey on the Twitter feed ‘Free Nazanin’, being joined by visitors such as politicians Sir Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and public figures like Claudia Winkleman and Victoria Coren-Mitchell.

Ratcliffe’s legacy continues, with The Guardian reporting that individuals all over the UK continue to take on hunger strikes in protest of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s unjust imprisonment, with one individual taking on the protest aged 89. Almost unusually, public opinion has united behind the Ratcliffe’s family case, which begs the question as to why her position has been so unstable in recent years.

There are concerns that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate is dependent upon outstanding debt owed to Iran amounting to four hundred million pounds, with Members of Parliament being advised to censor parliamentary contributions. As reported by The Guardian, Tulip Siddiq, Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Kilburn, the home constituency of the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family, was openly advised by Parliamentary Clerks to not discuss the current debt owed to the Iranian government.

If Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate is tied to the UK’s financial obligations, is it possible for her early release to be secured?

With a husband and child in the public eye, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is more well-known than others currently imprisoned in Iran, such as Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof. This may be a significant advantage in leverage, but also could cause a serious challenge to the government’s ability to demand change and difference with Iran dependent on ensuring they show themselves as consistent in unyielding to international pressure. With international tensions rising as countries scramble to revive the Iranian Nuclear Deal, Iran appears to be more determined than ever to ensure they’re uncompromising across the board.

With Johnson's leadership facing intensified scrutiny in the last few weeks, and the Conservative Party falling behind Labour in the polls, a well-timed intervention in the treatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe may be exactly what he needs to win over public opinion. But with a government unable to utilise diplomatic relations to ensure her release at the current time, Zaghari-Ratcliffe may be forced to face another year of unjust imprisonment.

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