Tehran's domestic divisions are keeping Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in jail
Until two weeks ago, only a few people in the UK would have heard of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen British-Iranian who has been detained in Iran for over a year. But after the British foreign secretary Boris Johnson mistakenly claimed at a parliamentary committee that she had been teaching journalists in the country when she was actually on holiday, her case became front page news.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family are unlikely to thank Mr Johnson for his error, especially after the remark was seized upon by Iranian media as a “confession” and she was hauled into court to be sentenced to a further five years in prison.
The media scramble that has since erupted has ensured that her case receives daily political attention – and yet, by placing the spotlight on it, her detention may have been extended.
The case sits at a peculiar nexus, caught between domestic British politics and internal Iranian divisions. Because without the fault lines so evident in British politics today, it is unlikely it would ever have received so much attention. And yet it is due to internal divisions within Iran itself that she was first arrested and continues to be held.
British politics is divided, at the highest level. After one cabinet minister resigned because of allegations of improper behaviour and another resigned for having secret meetings in Israel, the cabinet is delicately balanced. When Mr Johnson made his error, the media and the opposition scented blood and began baying for it. That extreme scrutiny had the welcome side effect of casting a spotlight on Zaghari-Ratcliffe's detention in Evin prison.
But it is due to divisions in Iranian politics that she is there in the first place. There are at least 10 dual nationals of western countries imprisoned in Iran; five are Americans, three are British. (The numbers sometimes vary because of permanent residency holders.) Most were arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the country's military, and at least half were arrested after a significant prisoner swap took place between the United States and Iran in January 2016. Indeed, last year saw a flurry of arrests by the IRGC of British, French, American, Canadian and Swedish nationals.
The common thread is the Revolutionary Guard, the locus of hardline power in the country and a group that often finds itself in tension with more moderate presidents, such as the current incumbent Hassan Rouhani. It is this internal division that so often colours what happens between Iran and the rest of the world.
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On Twitter, the former Washington Post Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has been following the case, emphasised that the prisoners were “hostages”: “The Guards [are] using them as bargaining chips in international relations and to put off European firms that sought business in Iran.”
Rezaian should know. He was one of four US dual citizens released in January last year as part of the prisoner swap negotiated in secret alongside the deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme. In return, seven Iranians in the US had charges against them dropped. He, along with his wife Yeganeh Salehi – a former correspondent for this newspaper – faced trumped-up charges and allegations.
At the time, the US was keen to portray the prisoner swap as a one-off – “a unique arrangement...a humanitarian gesture” as one US official put it at the time – but elements within Iran's intelligence services have recognised the power of prisoners to pressure western politicians, which explains why so many dual nationals were picked up later that same year.
These prisoners appear to be kept as bargaining chips, often used to send political messages. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, for instance, was sentenced to five years in prison on September 10 last year – exactly five days after the British government appointed an ambassador to the country for the first time in half a decade. As one part of the Iranian government pursues an opening, the IRGC seeks to shut it down.
The same thing also happened just days before the prisoner swap took place, when Iran detained 10 sailors who crossed into Iranian waters. They were swiftly released, but not before Iranian state TV had broadcast footage of the soldiers on their knees at gunpoint, apologising to the Iranian government, footage that caused outrage in the US. Analysts later noted that one of the reasons for the flurry of activity between Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and America's then-secretary of state John Kerry was because Mr Zarif, a supporter of the nuclear deal, was concerned that the IRGC would use this to derail the deal. The longer the sailors were detained, the more likely they were to become political pawns.
This is now the danger and the opportunity of Zaghari-Ratcliffe's appearance on newspaper front pages. The British foreign secretary is due in Iran later this year on a previously scheduled trip to promote British business. Neither London nor Tehran wants this case to overshadow that. Yet they have no choice now and so both sides will be seeking an elegant way out.
The possibility therefore now exists that those elements inside Iran who wish for better relations with the West might persuade the IRGC that this would be a good moment for a gesture of goodwill. Equally, the IRGC might demand a high price for her release or use it as a chance to derail the visit.
While that diplomatic dance between the countries and within them is going on, it is better if Mr Johnson, who has proved himself to be rather bumbling in one of the country's most important political offices, remains in post. The British opposition – and some in his own party – would love nothing better than to use this moment to get rid of him. But with only weeks to go before a high-level visit to Tehran, his resignation would prove a distraction and end the media spotlight. For the sake of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family, it is better that the media bubble follows Mr Johnson all the way to Evin prison.
Updated: November 14, 2017 05:21 PM