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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43 thoughts on “More on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

  1. The thing that gets me is that the BBC, by harping on about how Iran’s interpretation of the words of Johnson (for whom I have no love) may have lengthened her sentence by ‘proving’ their charges have some validity, is implying that it’s perfectly legitimate for dictatorships to imprison people for teaching journalists.

    Surely this is not a message that the BBC, of all organisations, wants to be sending?

    [The dual-nationality thing is a complication, but when it comes right down to it, while I may not want Boris Johnson to be foreign secretary, I do want a foreign secretary who is willing to say, ‘even if she really was training journalists, it is still not okay to imprison someone for that.’ I mean, what if this had been someone imprisoned for the same ‘offence’ in 1980s Czechoslovakia?]

  2. Gove may be many things but he isn’t stupid or a political neophyte. He will have known he’d get asked that question and could either have got himself fully briefed or refused to comment because it was an FO issue.

    By choosing the words he did he has made sure he can’t be accused of lying if something does come out and at the same time distanced himself from her cause.

    Good point about her dual nationality. Again, the FO would normally be at pains to point this out and work quietly behind the scenes if they felt there was a case. Perhaps that’s why the husband is making such a fuss, he’s been told they can’t do anything?

    Your speculation may be wild, but this story comes across as if there’s something we’re not being told and that hole gets deeper every time I see a BBC news story.

  3. S: “is implying that it’s perfectly legitimate” is rather harsh. It’s implying that it occurs. Which is an inconvenient truth (particularly for the BBC, which is inevitably involved in such things due to the World Service etc) but I’d prefer the BBC acknowledged inconvenient truths rather than self-censored. I don’t feel that the BBC reporting in any way endorses the imprisonment of journalists or their trainers.

  4. By choosing the words he did he has made sure he can’t be accused of lying if something does come out and at the same time distanced himself from her cause.

    I expect he told the absolute truth.

  5. “is implying that it’s perfectly legitimate” is rather harsh. It’s implying that it occurs

    It’s stating that it occurs. It’s implying, by its choice of what to report and what not to report, that the important fact about this case is that she was really on holiday, and that Johnson is responsible for Bad Things happening to her because he has let the Iranians claim she was not on holiday.

    It’s the narrative of ‘this is Boris Johnson’s fault’, which is being pushed by the BBC (and is implicit in Marr’s question to Gove) which implies that the Iranians are not the ones at fault here.

    Of course they are careful not to say that the Iranians are not at fault (because they are). But by trying to pin all the blame on Johnson, they imply that (perhaps unintentionally — I don’t think they want to make out that the Iranians are acting perfectly reasonably, I think they, for Brexit- related reasons, just really want to push the ‘government in crisis’ narrative and they have a particular hatred for Johnson, and they don’t care about the collateral damage they are causing).

  6. In fairness to Mr Ratcliffe, when asked (on Today this morning) if Boris Johnson should resign, he said, “No”.

  7. In fairness to Mr Ratcliffe, when asked (on Today this morning) if Boris Johnson should resign, he said, “No”.

    Good for him.

  8. Indeed, Guido reports Mr Ratcliffe elsewhere as saying ““It’s not in Nazanin’s interests to have the Foreign Secretary battling for his job”

    On dual nationality, Note 6 in the back of a British passport states:

    British nationals who are also nationals of another country cannot be protected by Her Majesty’s Representatives against the authorities of that country. If, under the law of that country, they are liable for any obligation (such as military service), the fact that they are British nationals does not exempt them from it.

  9. Britain isn’t the only country that has been having trouble over Iran and dual citizens. A good read from a Dutch perspective is http://www.prisonlaw.nl/en/nieuwsberichten/102-arrested-with-a-dual-nationality

    A particular problem is that Iran doesn’t recognise dual citizenship, so there is very little that foreign governments can do in cases like this.

    With Iran being as it is, there’s no guarantee that the things she has been charged for are actually the things that she’s actually suspected of doing. (I am sceptical that the Dutch-Iranian activist arrested in anti-government protests but then executed for drug crimes was actually a drug criminal, for example – drugs are nice and easy to plant if you want a more convenient and internationally palatable reason to punish someone. And an actual drug smuggler drawing attention to herself by getting arrested at a protest would be a fool of the first order.) Or even, necessarily, that she’s suspected of anything in particular at all – the possibility that Iran just wanted to round up some dual nationals to exert pressure on foreign governments while the nuclear deal is under review presumably can’t be 100% ruled out.

    The British government’s advice to its own dual nationals – not just British-Iranians but dual with anywhere – is, as you say, that they won’t get consular assistance etc in the same way if they are arrested in another country that they are also citizens of. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean the government won’t exert diplomatic pressure in individual cases, particularly if there are human rights issues at stake.

    I do think Boris dropped the ball on this one. Discussions about whether he should go or not are not going to do anything to free the woman concerned, nor would a change in Foreign Secretary – in fact even if the family sorted out their PR, put a clearer story out about what her work involved and demonstrated beyond all doubt that the Iranian charges are all trumped out, I still doubt it would change any relevant decision-maker’s mind in Iran.

    If you go to a dodgy country, dodgy stuff can happen and your British citizenship doesn’t guarantee the British government can save you. If you go to a country you’re a citizen of and which doesn’t even recognise your British citizenship, then that applies even more. That doesn’t mean I lack sympathy for an awful situation, but like those unfortunate Dutch-Iranians, just because the consequences of an action are unpredictable and unfair doesn’t mean they won’t happen to you. And there are certain places in the world where unfair, unpredictable things occur more often. If you don’t want such unfair, unpredictable things to happen to you, then such places are best avoided.

  10. Indeed, Guido reports Mr Ratcliffe elsewhere as saying ““It’s not in Nazanin’s interests to have the Foreign Secretary battling for his job”

    But late for that now: the media and opposition are demanding he does. It’s going to be interesting when if and when she’s released from prison. Will she be allowed to leave Iran? If Britain can ban suspected football hooligans from traveling, why can’t Iran do the same?

    On dual nationality, Note 6 in the back of a British passport states:

    Yeah, I thought there was something in the back of my passport to that effect, and specifically mentioned national service (which is where I got my example from). I’m at a loss to explain the FO involvement here.

  11. Or even, necessarily, that she’s suspected of anything in particular at all – the possibility that Iran just wanted to round up some dual nationals to exert pressure on foreign governments while the nuclear deal is under review presumably can’t be 100% ruled out.

    Quite possible, yes.

    in fact even if the family sorted out their PR, put a clearer story out about what her work involved and demonstrated beyond all doubt that the Iranian charges are all trumped out, I still doubt it would change any relevant decision-maker’s mind in Iran.

    Agreed, but it would at least inform British citizens of who their government is expending political efforts on.

    If you don’t want such unfair, unpredictable things to happen to you, then such places are best avoided.

    The problem is, these places are often fun!

    Her biggest problem is she probably believed, as all the good lefties who surrounded her told her, that her work in the Reuters charity and the BBC was unequivocally pure and good and nobody would take issue with it. If *I* have a problem with what the BBC and “charities” like this do, seeing them as political organisations with a very set agenda, God knows what the Iranians and other regimes must think.

  12. “I’m at a loss to explain the FO involvement here”

    “Special humanitarian reasons” can apply. Note that the FO will even intervene diplomatically in support of people with no connection to Britain if human rights issues are involved (they call out unfair jailing of opposition activists for example), so it’s not surprising they’ll pull some stops out for dual nationals in cases like this. See https://www.gov.uk/help-if-you-are-arrested-abroad/y/iran

    What the FCO and British consulate can’t do

    The FCO and British consulate won’t be able to:
    get someone out of prison or detention
    help someone get special treatment
    offer legal advice, start legal proceedings or investigate a crime
    pay for any costs as a result of being arrested
    forward packages sent by friends or family to an arrested person or prisoner
    prevent authorities from deporting a British national after release

    Dual nationals

    The FCO and British consulate can help a dual British national (with a valid British passport) as long as they’re arrested in a country other than the one they hold dual nationality with.

    They won’t get involved if someone’s arrested in a country for which they hold a valid passport, unless there’s a special humanitarian reason to do so.

    I doubt whether there’s much in the FO arsenal that would satisfy the family, given that Iran doesn’t recognise her UK citizenship and shows no signs of wanting to play ball.

  13. Her biggest problem is she probably believed, as all the good lefties who surrounded her told her, that her work in the Reuters charity and the BBC was unequivocally pure and good and nobody would take issue with it.

    That’s a bit of an unkind view to take. If she had actually been training journalists in Iran (which of course she wasn’t), in the knowledge of what could happen to her if she was ever suspected, but willing to risk it in order to strike a blow for press freedom under a repressive dictatorship, then that makes her pretty heroic — as I wrote above, imagine if this had been a Czechoslovak working with their dissidents during the 1980s.

  14. (I understand that the family want her to be granted diplomatic protection, but this can only apply once the local appeals process is exhausted – has it been yet? – and even then there are still issues with the Master Nationality Rule. It would take some cunning legal work to demonstrate she was even eligible for diplomatic protection, and I can’t see the Iranians accepting such an argument. And even diplomatic protection isn’t a get-out-of-jail card. It seems to me the sad truth is that she’s stuffed, and is likely to remain so until such a point as the Iranian government might find it convenient to unstuff her.)

  15. In fairness to her husband, he’s been pretty sensible in all the interviews I’ve heard.

    He’s consistently stuck to the line that’s Boris is helping, the Iranian gvt/judiciary are at fault, and he’s just pulling whatever levers he can to get his missus back.

    Tim is right to raise the dual citizenship- it’s been marginalised in coverage.

    The BBC and papers aren’t being helpful- I think they are trying to force a resignation to further the ‘May is in disarray’ story (to perhaps derail Brexit? Big week ahead there….)

    Either way- it’s all piss. Anyone travelling to Iran is briefed to keep their noses clean. If you work for something like TR Foundation, she’d have been told to keep it discrete/careful.

  16. If I were a Jewish dual citizen of Nazi Germany and the UK, I think I might have decided it was probably wise not to go on holiday in Nuremberg in the late 1930s.
    Guilty or innocent this woman must have known she was an Iranian citizen, married to a Brit and holding two passports. So WTF? Either way she’s a dumb heifer.
    Moral of the story – don’t go on holiday in Mordor. The orks will get you.

  17. “Perhaps the Iranian government doesn’t like …”

    A few months ago I had reason to enquire about visiting Iran from someone qualified to opine. I was told that one problem is that there isn’t really a single coherent government. What you have is an array of factions, each with armed men at their disposal. A visitor to Iran could be arrested/detained/kidnapped by any of these factions for favourable publicity, to make a political point, to extort money, or for some unguessable motive.

    He suggested that it was particularly foolish for a woman to visit Iran.

  18. Are we now to presume that cabinet ministers are expected to know the whys and wherefores of all British dual nationals’ trips back to the country of their other citizenship?

  19. There is a third possibility which is that as a result of the stink raised some frantic behind the scenes diplomacy does get the woman released in exchange for some exorbitant quid pro quo which will cost UK taxpayers millions.

    But that’s what the BBC does best, costing UK taxpayers billions.

  20. It may not be that easy to renounce Iranian citizenship if you take this guys word for it.

    Try renouncing American citizenship!

  21. If she had actually been training journalists in Iran (which of course she wasn’t), in the knowledge of what could happen to her if she was ever suspected, but willing to risk it in order to strike a blow for press freedom under a repressive dictatorship, then that makes her pretty heroic

    I have no problem with her running risks for press freedom, but can we at least state the truth, if this is indeed it?

  22. The FCO and British consulate can help a dual British national (with a valid British passport) as long as they’re arrested in a country other than the one they hold dual nationality with.

    Yeah, that’s what I suspected.

  23. Yeah, that’s what I suspected.

    Even in international law what the UK can do is limited by the Master Nationality Rule. Well worth reading that to understand how critical the dual nationality issue is here. It is one reason some governments encourage citizens to consider dropping their other nationalities – because retaining them renders them more vulnerable in situations like this.

  24. I have no problem with her running risks for press freedom, but can we at least state the truth, if this is indeed it?

    Well, the cat does seem to be out of the bag now, but there are cases when it could be useful, as a face-saving exercise, for both governments to be able to pretend in public that a citizen was a mere tourist. There were lots of cases of this during the cold war. Say, communist dictatorship A arrests citizen of country B who is there smuggling, say, Bibles, big fuss, country B agrees to release one of country A’s spies, country A says ‘situation has been clarified’, that the person was just a tourist all along, the deal is done, smuggler in question gets a bollocking by an FCO official on the way home for getting caught.

    That way country A gets its spy back, and doesn’t have to admit that arresting people for smuggling Bibles is wrong (so it can pull the same trick again).

    That’s the sense in which Johnson’s remark was rather ill-advised. But then, the man really was the worst choice for a diplomatic role, because he speaks without thinking. We all know that.

    However, if you’re concerned for the welfare of the person involved, what you do if an official accidentally spills the beans on something like this in public is you downplay it. you certainly don’t pounce on it as an opportunity to try to claim a government scalp. That’s what you do if you don’t particularly care about the person involved, and your main concern is to bring down the government. And you don’t care that by implication you are giving the message that arresting people who are on holiday isn’t okay but arresting people for training journalists is.

  25. Well worth reading that to understand how critical the dual nationality issue is here.

    Indeed, and your comments here are the first I’d heard of there being a formal rule; I had guessed – based only on common sense and general observations – that such a rule existed, and was implied in the writing in the back of our passports.

    Which only goes to show how useless our media is. I bet they’re not even aware of it.

  26. Well, the cat does seem to be out of the bag now, but there are cases when it could be useful, as a face-saving exercise, for both governments to be able to pretend in public that a citizen was a mere tourist.

    Indeed. Finding an exit whereby the Iranians can save face is crucial here.

    However, if you’re concerned for the welfare of the person involved, what you do if an official accidentally spills the beans on something like this in public is you downplay it.

    Exactly.

  27. In the hope that no-one important reads this.
    During the cold war it was not uncommon for some poor deluded westerner to be arrested on spying charges behind the iron curtain, swapped for a Russian spy, and later to be outed as a spy.

  28. Surely the important thing to learn from this is don’t go to Iran ever? I certainly never will. There are lots of nice safer places in the world.

  29. Surely the important thing to learn from this is don’t go to Iran ever? I certainly never will.

    I know quite a few people who’ve been to Iran – Michael Jennings, for one – and they never had any problems. I expect this lady ran into trouble because she is an Iranian national and because of her previous employers.

  30. @Anon

    My place does oil-related work. The Iranian market is potentially very lucrative for us.

    However, the decision has been made we’ll only deal via intermediaries. This is partly a safety issue, but also- it’s still not a good look to be doing business with the mullahs….

  31. “but willing to risk it in order to strike a blow for press freedom under a repressive dictatorship, then that makes her pretty heroic

    I have no problem with her running risks for press freedom, but can we at least state the truth, if this is indeed it?

    And getting the Foreign Secretary thrown under the bus as part of the bargain is rather less heroic.

  32. getting the Foreign Secretary thrown under the bus as part of the bargain is rather less heroic

    I don’t think we can blame her for things which happen while she is in an Iranian gaol. That would be giving her rather too much credit.

    The responsibility for how this has been reported, and specifically for the twisting of the reportage to try to leverage a ministerial resignation, is entirely on the media outlets, in this case mainly the BBC.

  33. The responsibility for how this has been reported, and specifically for the twisting of the reportage to try to leverage a ministerial resignation, is entirely on the media outlets, in this case mainly the BBC.

    Yeah, my main gripe is in how this is being reported. As for the lady herself, my guess is she’s been rather too idealistic and naive about the country of (presumably) her birth. I feel sorry for the husband too, the whole family in fact.

  34. the first I’d heard of there being a formal rule

    One reason that restrictions on the scope of diplomatic protection are generally seen as desirable is that it stops strong states bullying weak ones. See e.g. the Calvo Doctrine – Latin American countries being less than keen for the USA to exercise its power on disputes involving U.S. investments in the region. To combine it with another of your themes of today, several of Russia’s neighbours have for years been alarmed at how it has been handing out dual Russian citizenship to Kremlin-friendly inhabitants of their border areas, providing a pretext of “protecting Russian nationals” when the time is ripe (as has been exercised in Georgia and Ukraine).

  35. I have no sympathy for the Tories. They have had countless opportunities to put the BBC out of business and failed to do so.

  36. Well, that has certainly put my plans for a walking holiday in the Tora Bora mountains on hold, I can tell you!

    I wonder what Beirut is like at this time of year?

  37. “that has certainly put my plans for a walking holiday in the Tora Bora mountains on hold”

    This may be one of the reasons to keep it on the front pages, economic attack of sorts.

  38. One reason that restrictions on the scope of diplomatic protection are generally seen as desirable is that it stops strong states bullying weak ones.

    Interesting: yes, that makes sense.

    To combine it with another of your themes of today, several of Russia’s neighbours have for years been alarmed at how it has been handing out dual Russian citizenship to Kremlin-friendly inhabitants of their border areas, providing a pretext of “protecting Russian nationals” when the time is ripe (as has been exercised in Georgia and Ukraine).

    Indeed, several countries – including the US – have used “protection of their citizens” as an excuse to mount a military intervention.

  39. I wonder what Beirut is like at this time of year?

    Ordinarily, okay. Right now…hmmm. Although I have a friend going there for Christmas! 😀

  40. In the case of the Bali 9, it is pretty cheeky of the Australian government to castigate the Indonesians, given that it was them that tipped the Indonesians off about their activities in the first place.

  41. Kevin,

    Exactly! I assumed the Australians wanted the Indonesians to deal with them because they’d likely do so properly, i.e. harshly.

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