More on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

From the BBC:

Michael Gove has come under fire for saying he didn’t know what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran when she was arrested in 2016.

Then he’s in the same position as most of us.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said Mr Gove had “compounded” Mr Johnson’s “cavalier approach to international diplomacy”.

Firstly, why did the BBC’s Andrew Marr bring up the topic of Zaghari-Ratcliffe with Gove, who is the Environment Secretary? What’s this got to do with him?

Secondly, if the welfare of Zaghari-Ratcliffe hangs in the balance and her fortunes could swing one way or the other based on what ministers back in the UK say, perhaps it would be better if the likes of the BBC refrained from raising the topic on live television with politicians not involved in her case?

What is happening here is obvious. The BBC want to maintain the narrative that the government is in disarray, and so Marr put the question to Gove hoping to stir the pot a little. Unless Gove repeated word-for-word what Boris did they could use it to manufacture more outrage, and sure enough that’s what’s happened. Boris is now saying Zaghari-Ratcliffe went to Iran on holiday, Gove says he doesn’t know, and my guess is the Foreign Office documents would tell us a lot more than the BBC is right now. They seem to be playing the role of mouthpiece for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, uncritically accepting and repeating whatever he has to say.

I found this interesting:

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran airport with her 18-month-old daughter in April 2016, one of several Iranians with dual nationality to be detained over a period of months.

If Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an Iranian citizen, then what has this got to do with the Foreign Office? I’ve always thought the unwritten rule of diplomacy was that dual citizens generally have to deal with each of their home countries without help from the other. If you’re a dual British and Greek citizen and the Greeks snatch you from a beach in Mykonos and enroll you in national service, the British government won’t help you: it’s an internal matter.

I can understand why Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband started making noises about his wife’s arrest and imprisonment – who wouldn’t? – but in doing so he’s got the Foreign Office publicly involved which has led to Boris Johnson’s allegedly misguided statements. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if things are less clear cut than they seem. In the absence of any proper reporting, I’m going to give myself license to speculate a little.

First I’ll note that Zaghari-Ratcliffe has retained her Iranian name, which suggests her Iranian nationality was not something she wished to keep hidden. On the contrary, she probably used to to good effect during her career working for a political lobby-group calling itself a charity and the BBC. We already know that the BBC was training Iranian journalists, which appears to be in breach of Iranian law. Why the BBC thinks it has any business training Iranian journalists I don’t know, but their doing so appears to have landed several of them in jail. Well done, Auntie! So it may well be that one of these imprisoned journalists has been asked to name Iranians overseas involved with training journalists or writing articles critical of the Iranian government, and one of them has fingered Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Could it be that she has participated in training sessions, or contributed to articles, that the Iranian government interprets as being seditious? Might they have evidence of this? It’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility, is it? She was doing something for these organisations, so what was it? If she was solely involved with water-well projects in Bolivia or fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone and left the subject of Iran well alone, surely her former employers – who are indignantly expressing their outrage – would have come forward and said so, wouldn’t they?

So here’s my guess: she’s used her Iranian nationality in a professional capacity and someone in Iran has spilled her name. The Iranian authorities have got further details – perhaps an article with her name on or some course notes – and decided they were subversive. With her being an Iranian citizen with family in Iran, they’ve seen it as their business and their right to nab her at the airport and put her on trial. Now this doesn’t mean she deserves to be in jail or she’s been subject to a fair trial, but it is more plausible than the Iranians simply nabbing someone for the hell of it. Perhaps the Iranian government doesn’t like its citizens working for organisations like the BBC and “charities” actively involved in politics which run contrary to their interests, in which case Zaghari-Ratcliffe really ought to have realised this before she accepted a job with them, but I think there is more to this story than we’re being told.

Unfortunately, we only have the word of her husband to go on. He is being paraded around the BBC amid calls for Boris Johnson to resign, seemingly unaware he is being used as a political pawn. Nobody gives a shit about his wife, other than him: everyone else is only interested in making the Tories look bad. He may soon come to regret his decision to participate in this circus. In 2015 I said this in relation to the execution of the ringleaders of the Bali Nine:

By all means, make the principled stand I described earlier but whipping up a media frenzy which overlooks the pair’s incontrovertible guilt and their leadership role, complete with accusations of corruption, threats of boycotts, withdrawal of ambassadors, and the casual dismissal of the sovereign right of Indonesia to try and sentence criminals apprehended on their own turf in accordance with their own laws.  There were times when the Australians might as well have said “Listen brown folk, we know you’re all corrupt and we are your superior neighbours, so let our citizens go free and we’ll allow you to sit with us at the next regional summit.”  Would Australia have dared to behave like this had the two ended up on death row in California?  Would they hell.  Would Australia have been happy about the Indonesian government protesting an Australian court ruling in such a manner?  No they would not.

Whatever chance the condemned men had of being spared before they were shot on 29th April, this was surely extinguished by the frankly disgraceful behaviour of Australia’s politicians and media.  No doubt the Indonesians will be blamed for years for the death of a “young, shy Australian man” and his mate who is “funny, articulate… charismatic and has a very caring personality”.  But Australia ought to shoulder the blame for ensuring their sentence would be carried out by insulting the Indonesians to such an extent that they had little choice but to do otherwise.

If Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has chosen to take the route of whipping up Britain’s media into a frenzy over the inexcusable jailing of his wife by the Iranian regime, he had better be absolutely damned sure there isn’t the slightest shred of evidence that can be used to justify their actions. Unless she’s led a squeaky-clean professional life having nothing to do with Iran and maintaining only personal and family connections, then he’s playing a very dangerous game. The Iranians have made a stand on this, suggesting they are deeply unhappy about something she has done. Now the matter has turned into an international incident, the Iranians will be forced to either double-down or release her. If the have anything which could even semi-plausibly be used against her – such as testimony from an Iranian journalist trained by the BBC – which option do you think they’ll take?

I might be wrong on all of this, and some people might be annoyed that I’m engaged in wild speculation. But if nobody is going to do any proper reporting and the BBC – which seems complicit in this whole mess – is simply going to serve as a mouthpiece for the woman’s husband, then I make no apologies.

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The Media and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

I woke up this morning to news that Boris Johnson had apparently made a gaffe regarding a certain Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who currently resides in an Iranian prison. The media is going absolutely mental over it, and Twitter mobs and Labour politicians are piling on.

The story is that Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, was jailed in Tehran after being arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016, charged with plotting to overthrow the government. The full charges have not been made public, but she denies any wrongdoing. According to her family, she went to Iran to visit her parents, but Boris Johnson said something quite different during a parliamentary enquiry:

A charity fears a British-Iranian woman held in Iran could have her prison sentence doubled following remarks made by the foreign secretary.

Boris Johnson told a Commons committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested at Tehran Airport in 2016, was “teaching people journalism”.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation said she was seeing family and urged Mr Johnson to correct his “serious mistake”.

All the reporting on this is focused on Johnson’s gaffe and how he should immediately retract, explain, apologise, and resign. Everyone is piling in, using the incident as an excuse to bash the hapless Theresa May and the Tory government. What is missing, unsurprisingly, is some actual reporting.

Now perhaps Johnson has made an enormous blunder which could see Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence doubled – the Iranians have seized on his remarks to threaten her with this – but nobody seems interested in asking why he made them and what they were based on. As is so often the case when Brits are jailed abroad, everyone is simply taking the family’s word that she is thoroughly innocent, the Iranians have no case against her, and Johnson made a catastrophic error.

Now it could be that the Iranians have simply decided to chuck this woman in jail for no reason as the media implies, but we should at least look a little closer. So, firstly:

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has worked for the charity the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the BBC

This would be the same Thompson Reuters foundation that, among other things, provides pro-bono legal advice for refugees and immigrants to fight deportation from the USA:

The US has long prided itself on championing human rights and the rights of those fleeing persecution;  between 1980-2016 the country received approximately 70,000 refugees annually.

Yet on 6 March 2017, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order that suspended the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, and banned people from six majority-Muslim countries – Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the country for 90 days.

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a leading non-profit providing legal representation to refugees, immediately mobilised thousands of pro bono lawyers at airports to assist incoming immigrants and refugees. Besides offering direct legal advice on the ground, IRAP identified an urgent need to create a ‘one-stop shop’ online to inform affected individuals on their rights, and available legal options.

We also get gems like this:

Worsening droughts, storms, floods and sea level rise can exacerbate poverty and create more vulnerability in the form of child marriage and human trafficking. But a global transition to clean energy also presents huge opportunities to spur development and improve life for billions of people. By opening up the conversation to include the ‘human cost’, we are able to connect with new audiences, and forge partnerships that can help build more resilient and sustainable societies.

Now I don’t want to defend the Iranians here, but it’s not too difficult to see how they reached the conclusion that anyone working for this outfit is involved in political activity, not mundane charity work. So did anyone in the media bother to find out what her work involved, and whether any of it concerned Iran? Of course not, but one would think this was relevant, no? I’ve also not been able to find if she was born in Iran, and if so when she left. We have plenty of footage of indignant family members, but precious little about the actual person other than a few photogenic pics of her with a cute kid.

Note that she also worked for the BBC. Now according to this Guardian report:

Although the exact reasons for her incarceration are unclear, Iranian authorities have hinted that her arrest is linked to the 2014 imprisonment of several employees of an Iranian technology news website, according to Amnesty International. They were given long prison terms for participating in a BBC journalism training course. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was a project assistant at the BBC’s Media Action, the broadcaster’s international development charity, in 2008-09. The BBC is loathed by the Iranian establishment, mainly for its Persian service, which is watched by millions of Iranians via illegal satellite dishes.

So was Zaghari-Ratcliffe involved in delivering this training course or not? The BBC has gone all-in on the outrage, but I’ve yet to see a statement saying:

“We confirm the BBC provided journalism training to Iranian citizens, but at no point was Zaghari-Ratcliffe involved.”

One wonders why not.

In other words, Boris Johnson is being castigated for suggesting Zaghari-Ratcliffe was involved in an activity – training Iranian journalists – which the BBC appears to have carried out quite openly at a time when she worked there. If training Iranian journalists is such a horrendous crime that Johnson has endangered this woman’s liberty by suggesting she was involved in it, then why is the BBC doing it?

I’m not saying the Iranians have a case here, or that the poor woman deserves to be in jail. But it appears her employment in a highly political “charity” and the BBC, which peddles fake news and engages in political interference as a matter of course, has been used as a basis for her incarceration. Presumably she thought both organisations were whiter-than-white and her role in each wouldn’t be viewed with suspicion by the authorities when she travelled to Iran. That has proved to be a costly mistake.

Boris Johnson appears to have put his foot in it as usual, but if anyone was really interested in the truth of this we’d see some proper reporting. Instead, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate is being used as an excuse to bash the Tory government and score some cheap political points. This is handy for the media of course, because it detracts attention from the fact that their employees are being thrown in jail for peddling political propaganda. In all of this, nobody is looking very good.

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Trump at the UN

This tweet summed it up well for me:

And this was laugh-out-loud funny from the ever-reliable Iowahawk:

It’s also been rather amusing watching people fall over themselves to defend the Rocketman and the Mullahs because they hate Trump so much.

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More dick-waving in the Middle East

What sort of empty-headed statement is this?

Qatar Rift May Boost Extremism, Germany Warns.
‘A dispute among partners and neighbors will…make the wrong ones stronger,’ says German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

Who is this statement even intended for? Who is being warned here? Qataris? Saudis? Are they going to listen to the German foreign minister? Or maybe it’s aimed at Germans. Okay, so what are Germany’s interests in the Middle East (other than flogging luxury cars) and what leverage do they have? Or is Germany appealing to others to help out? Who, then? The US? The UK? Heh.

I think the German foreign minister spoke these words hoping it would make Germany look “concerned” and clued-up, and imply they should be involved in any plan to make things better. To me they smack of desperation to appear relevant in a potentially serious situation which is going to pan out one way or another wholly unaffected by what the German government says, does, or thinks. Of course, the rise of extremists in the Middle East would not be so much of a problem were Germany not so keen on inviting tens of thousands of them into Europe.

Anyway, irrelevant German warblings aside, things appear to be getting interesting over in the Gulf. Turkey is offering to send troops to prop up the beleaguered Qatari government, and Iran has thrown in its support as well. This means the two sides in the argument are:

1. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt

2. Qatar, Turkey and Iran

Kuwait is staying well out of it, sensible chaps.

The surprising element is Iran coming in on the side of Qatar, or more accurately, the Qataris appearing to accept their help. Iran is quite happy to prop up the governments of other countries, e.g. Syria but it comes at the price of ceding a degree of control to Tehran and allowing Hezbollah and other Shia militias to set up shop on their turf. Perhaps the Qatari rulers think they’ll be toppled without Iranian help and so don’t have much to lose. For a country which is 90% Sunni, this might not end well.

Turkey’s offer of troops is also more for show than anything else. Are Turkish soldiers really going to be fighting in the streets of Doha if it comes down to it? If they’re fighting Saudis they’re going to find themselves running out of ammunition and supplies pretty quickly, and will have to rely on Iran for logistics and air cover (assuming there is any), whereas the Saudis can amass all their stockpiles right next door. If Turkey wants to project power abroad, fighting Saudis in Qatar is probably not a smart way to go about it (but who knows how much of his own bullshit Erdogan believes at this stage?)

Perhaps Turkish troops will be deployed to stop a rival Qatari faction usurping the ruling families, but that’s unlikely to end well either. Are Qataris and other Arabs really going to just let a bunch of isolated Turks who don’t even speak the language swan around in Doha unmolested? I doubt it. The bloodshed will start on day one and won’t let up until the day they leave.

Russia is probably wondering what to do right now. They have usually sided with Iran in that part of the world, but there’s no love lost between them. For all the kissing and cuddling that went on between Russia and Turkey as they buried the hatchet over the shooting down of the plane in 2015 I am far from convinced the two leaders see eye to eye on much – other than to keep Iran’s influence in Syria to a minimum. But most importantly, Qatar with its enormous LNG cargoes has been the biggest threat to Russia’s dominance of the European gas market. Russia will be shedding no tears if Qatar’s LNG shipments get blockaded and the plants shut down. If the Russians have any sense they’ll stay right out of it, except of course to flood the region with as many weapons as it can sell.

The US should also stay right out of it, but it’s going to be hard to see how they can with two of their most important allies squaring off against one another. Iran is already blaming Saudi Arabia for the ISIS attack on its parliament yesterday, and people on Twitter are saying the Americans gave them the green light to do so. This is bollocks, but the Saudi move on Qatar is surely a result of their having been buoyed by Trump’s recent visit and his reconfirmation of the Saudi-US relationship. The US is going to have to work pretty hard to stay out of this one especially if things get nasty, but that’s what they need to do.

Today we have a General Election in the UK which Theresa May’s Conservatives are looking likely to win by a handsome margin. I am hoping that the first thing the new government does is draft up a law saying that anyone who advocates Britain getting involved in any capacity whatsoever amid calls for “something to be done” – even if staged photos of weeping children are plastered all over our media for the umpteenth time – shall be taken into Parliament Square, placed in the stocks, and kicked square up the arse by a serving member of the Parachute Regiment wearing a pair of steel-toed boots.

My guess is that this whole thing is mostly posturing and will be over within a few weeks.

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Tillerson on Iran

Rex Tillerson on Iran:

“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and to take the world along with it,” Mr Tillerson said.

Well, perhaps. Take the region with it, maybe. The world? I’m not so sure. This is neither the time nor subject for hyperbole.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson said a review, which he had announced in a letter to Congress a day earlier, would look at the whole US policy towards Iran – taking in not only Tehran’s compliance with the nuclear deal but also its actions in the Middle East.

This is sensible. Obama’s deal with Iran stank to high-heaven and should have been torn up the day after Trump’s inauguration.

He accused the country of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilising more than one country at a time”.

Which has been the case since 1979.

“Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, and continuing to support attacks against Israel.”

Okay, but perhaps the US would do well to re-evaluate some of those interests. Why is the US so preoccupied with what Iran is doing in Yemen, for example? Sure, it’s engaged in a proxy war with Saudi but why should America be dragged into it? And Syria? Well, I’ve said enough about that already.

As part of a long list of charges, he criticised Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and its support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Look, I’m no fan of either but Iran has every right to support Bashar al-Assad. This is none of America’s business, they should concentrate on defending their clear interests, not engage in woolly moral judgements about who is supporting whom.

America has tried policing the Middle East and it has been an utter disaster, they really ought to quit. Iran is a threat to US interests for the reasons Tillerson has cited, but by including issues in which the US interests are unclear serves only to provide ammunition to those who think Trump’s administration has been captured by neo-cons baying for war.

Everyone knows what Iran is like, we don’t need any more accusations or statements of the obvious. Just state clearly where and how they are in direct conflict with American interests and take firm action in those areas, and leave the rest well alone.

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Reality Bites

20th February, morning:

Iran has stopped selling crude to British and French companies, its oil ministry said on Sunday, in a retaliatory measure against fresh EU sanctions on the Islamic state’s major export.

20th February, afternoon:

Iran is “struggling” to find a buyer for its oil output surplus, according to a report, as UN weapons inspectors arrive back in the sanctions-hit country.

22nd February:

Iran has said it may lift its ban on oil exports to France and the UK on the day UN nuclear weapons inspectors were reportedly blocked from visiting one military site.

File under “Didn’t think that one through, did we?”

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Fighting in Turkmenistan

Back in May 2006, The Economist ran an article on Turkmenistan which said:

There is, though, much speculation about the 66-year-old Turkmenbashi’s health. He has had heart surgery, and has a team of eight top-notch German doctors constantly on call. This raises other problems, most obviously the lack of a mechanism for an orderly transfer of power, coupled with the lack of any democratic tradition in a conservative, tribal society. Pessimistic Turkmen fear that a lost generation, uneducated beyond the Ruhnama, may fall prey to Islamic radicalism—and create a nasty failed state that could destabilise an already volatile region.

Upon the death of Turkmenbashi 7 months later in December 2006, I recalled that article in this blog post, adding:

Fortunately, I think his death may have come too early for Islamic radicals to move in.  Had Niyazov been around for another decade, education in the country would have been almost eliminated in all meaningful sense. 

Had [Niyazov’s eradication of education] been allowed to continue, or indeed if it does continue, then the country will likely join the likes of Somalia and Afghanistan as fertile grounds in which to establish Islamic fundamentalism.  But with a lot of luck, and in the hope that Russia and the US can cooperate to help get Turkmenistan back on its feet without squabbling to the point where things are left to get worse, the situation should improve. 

There have been mild overtures from both Russia and the west towards enticing Turkmenistan back in from its self-imposed isolation, but events in Georgia and other issues have prevented any definitive actions regarding the gas-rich Caspian state.  And with the current climate between Russia and the US, it is unlikely that there will be much cooperation between the two on anything, let alone ensuring Turkmen development is supported in a bipartisan manner.  I always keep half an eye on the developments in Turkmenistan, and so I noticed this story from the BBC:

There has been heavy fighting in Turkmenistan between Islamist militants and security forces in the capital, Ashgabat, unconfirmed reports say.

Residents told news agencies that at least 20 police officers had died in gun battles on Friday night, and that police were now patrolling the area.

This report generates as many questions as it provides information, the most prominent one being where are these Islamic militants coming from? Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamic hotheads are not in particularly short supply.  Or are they home-grown?  Or a mixture of both?  I read an account in one of Colin Thubron’s books where the author asked some Turkmen whether militant Islam could take hold in the country.  The wisened son-of-the-desert Thubron addressed the question to said that any such threat would come from Iran and had little chance of being produced domestically.  But it’s probably best not to extrapolate too much from one person speaking to a travel writer passing through the Karakum desert.

However, Russia would do well (and I’m sure they are) to find out pretty sharpish if this story is true and where the troublemakers are coming from.  If it turns out to be Iran, we could see a shift in attitude between Russia and Iran.  For some time the Russians have been gambling that a belligerent Iran poses more of a problem for the US than Russia, even to the point that they seem prepared to extend this assessment to a nuclear armed Iran.  An Iran which can export trouble to Turkmenistan – which also shares doesn’t share (see comments) a border with Russia – might make the Russians reconsider.  They’d do well to make up their minds before Iran advances much further with its nuclear plans.

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