The BBC is urging the United Nations in Geneva to protect the rights of its journalists in Iran after what the British broadcaster described as an escalation of “persecution and harassment” by the Iranian authorities of those associated with its Persian Service.
The unprecedented appeal, made on Monday, is the latest manifestation of tensions between Britain and Iran, which were further inflamed over the weekend by a protest at the Iranian embassy in London and by Tehran’s sentencing of another dual national for spying.
According to BBC director general Tony Hall, the broadcaster decided to appeal to the UN “because our own attempts to persuade the Iranian authorities to end their harassment have been completely ignored.
“In fact, during the past nine years, the collective punishment of BBC Persian Service journalists and their families has worsened,” he said in a statement.
The broadcaster said that its journalists in London working on BBC Persian, part of the BBC World Service, and their families in Iran had been "systematically targeted" since it launched in 2009.
But the harassment escalated last year when Iranian authorities alleged the service’s work was a “crime against Iran’s national security”. An Iranian court also froze the assets of more than 150 individuals, mainly current and former BBC Persian staff, according to the broadcaster.
Other harassment by Iran has included the arbitrary arrest and detention of family members in Iran, the confiscation of passports and travel bans preventing people leaving Iran, the BBC said. It also said women journalists at the service were targeted by "fake and defamatory news" by the Iranian government.
The broadcaster said its journalists would speak before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It will also hold a series of events organised in conjunction with the International Federation of Journalists to highlight the fraught situation.
"We are not the only media organization to have been harassed or forced to compromise when dealing with Iran," Mr Hall said. "In truth, this story is much wider: it is a story about fundamental human rights.
"We are now asking the community of nations at the UN to support the BBC and uphold the right to freedom of expression."
Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson said in December he had raised the BBC’s concerns with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif when he visited Tehran.
However, there's a long enmity between Britain and Iran with the BBC’s appeal only the latest indication of underlying tensions.
The plight of dual nationals imprisoned in Iran has also become a major diplomatic sore point and was a key point on Mr Johnson’s agenda during his recent trip.
On Sunday, the official news agency of Iran’s judiciary reported that an unnamed British-Iranian had been sentenced to six years in prison on spying charges, the latest dual national convicted in the country.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement on Monday it was “currently investigating the reported sentencing,” without elaborating.
Others with ties to the West detained in Iran include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government while traveling with her young daughter.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in April 2016 and served a third of her sentence by January 2018, making her eligible for release. However, she remains in an Iranian jail notorious for its harsh conditions.
On Saturday, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband demanded urgent updates from the Foreign Office in London about what was holding up her return to the UK.
Richard Ratcliffe, who took part in a small gathering outside the Foreign Office, said there had been positive signs from the Iranian authorities but the family did not know when she might be coming home.
Analysts and family members of dual nationals and others detained in Iran have suggested that hard-liners in the Islamic Republic’s security agencies use the prisoners as bargaining chips for money or influence.
The Ratcliffe family believe the jailed mother remains held as Britain negotiates a settlement with Iran over £400 million held by London, a payment the late Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered.
The number of dual nationals with Western ties arrested has gone up since Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
British and other European officials are currently negotiating with the United States to find fixes for the agreement. Last week, US Vice President Mike Pence said that President Donald Trump will withdraw from the nuclear deal if it is not reworked out by May.
UK-Iran relations were also under strain on the weekend after a protest at the Iranian embassy in London, in which four people climbed on a first-floor balcony and took down the Iranian flag in an apparent protest against the government in Tehran.
Iran strongly condemned the incident and criticised the British police for failing to protect its diplomats and diplomatic missions.
Iran's ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeidnejad, tweeted that the assailants were "advocates of the Shirazi cult", also known as the British Shi'ites. Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Sadegh Hossein Shirazi, whose son was recently arrested for insulting Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been a fierce critic of Iran´s clerical leadership.
The fallout continued on Sunday, as Mr Baeidnejad claimed that he’d been threatened with death by a member of the same cult which carried out the raid.
On his Twitter account, Mr Baeidinejad posted screenshots of the threats on his life made by Hossein Marashi Qazvini, who had been posting accusations against the Iranian diplomat on social media.
“Given the fact that charges on murder and other confirmed charges have criminal penalties in both law and religion, can we at the very least hope for support from our own country’s judicial authorities?”, he wrote in a tweet on Sunday.