The family members of British nationals imprisoned in the Islamic Republic of Iran staged a protest outside of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office on Friday, accusing the government of doing too little to secure the release of their loved ones. On the same day, Johnson made a statement on Twitter to mark the four-year anniversary of Anoosheh Ashoori being arrested in Tehran.
“I reiterate my call for Iran to do the right thing and release him immediately,” Johnson wrote. But his critics expressed concern that his government is leaving the matter in Iranian hands and deferring to the clerical regime’s position that Ashoori and other dual nationals are citizens of the Islamic Republic and therefore subject only to the laws and processes of the Iranian judiciary. While other countries including the United Kingdom allow dual nationals to receive consular assistance from their native country when detained, Tehran does not recognize dual citizenship and routinely denies this consideration.
In at least one recent case, the British government attempted to compensate for this tendency by announcing that the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be subject to full diplomatic protection. Tehran harshly criticized the move, accusing Downing Street of complicating the case of the 42-year-old mother who was accused of plotting the overthrow of the theocratic system while she was in Iran visiting her parents with her then-three-year-old daughter.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five-year sentence ended in March, but she was barred from returning to the UK, where her daughter had previously returned to begin kindergarten while living with her father Richard Ratcliffe. Nazanin was promptly brought up on new charges and sentenced to another year in prison in April.
The Islamic Republic has a long history of arbitrarily extending politically-motivated sentences in this fashion. There is no indication that this outcome had anything to do with the UK’s decision to extend diplomatic protection to the prisoner. It is more likely that Tehran is intent on holding all available British nationals hostage in hopes of eliciting compensation from the British government in the form of prisoner swaps or financial gains, such as the repayment of a £400 million debt stemming from canceled arms sales preceding the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Richard Ratcliffe recalled attention to his wife’s status as a hostage in Friday’s protest, as did the family of Anoosheh Ashoori. They remain so convinced of Iran’s motives that they are insisting upon the same offer of diplomatic protection for him as was offered to Zaghari-Ratcliffe. While her case demonstrates that such a gesture is insufficient to resolve the situation, few advocates for Iranian hostages believe that it would do the sort of harm that Tehran warned about.
In a letter urging this course of action, Janet Daby, the Member of Parliament for the family’s community in the UK, said of Ashoori, “He has not received a fair trial, he has been there being tortured, being held in solitary confinement, and really being estranged from his family in a way in which he shouldn’t be… The Government is not doing enough to protect, him, to get him released, or enough for the family.”
Similar criticisms have been levied against a range of Western entities as Iranian authorities have continued to escalate a strategy of hostage-taking in the midst of growing tensions with the international community. Presently, at least 16 dual nationals are known to be detained in the Islamic Republic, though the real number is likely much higher. Tehran tends to respond to the mere threat of publicity in such matters much the same way it responds to the prospect of diplomatic protection: by warning that the detainee’s case will only be further complicated, and their release made less likely. As a result, a number of families have avoided going to the media about their loved ones’ ordeals for months or years, only to eventually realize they are being treated no differently from other dual nationals.
At least two more dual nationals were sentenced to prison in Iran early this month, including another British citizen, Mehran Raoof. He and German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi were each sentenced to 10 years in prison on vague charges of “participating in a banned group” and “propaganda against the state” in connection with their social activism. Three other Iranian citizens were prosecuted simultaneously on the basis of similar activities, but the harshest of their sentences were six years and eight months. There is little question that the discrepancy reflects a familiar trend of more aggressive prosecution in the case of dual nationals – a trend that is likely to grow stronger as Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, settles into office.
This week, Raisi submitted to parliament his choices to run a range of cabinet ministries and government agencies. Among them was Hossein Amir Abdollahian, a close associate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. Abdollahian is slated to take over for Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s Foreign Minister, and experts believe that his appointment reflects the Raisi administration’s lack of interest in serious engagement with Western adversaries.
That prospective shift in posture could have significant implications for Western nationals detained in the Islamic Republic. While Tehran is sure to remain open to the prospect of prisoner exchanges and ransom payments, it may take a less direct approach than Zarif’s Foreign Ministry, relying on Western nations to reach out in the face of harsh treatment of their citizens. This, of course, makes the Ashoori family’s appeals for diplomatic protection and more assertive action on this and other cases even more urgent than it has been for the past several years.