BBC feud inspired Iranian spy plan
Interrogators asked Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to spy on group in return for her freedom
Iran pressured jailed Briton Nazanin-Zaghari Ratcliffe to spy on a London-based consultancy after she was dragged into the regime’s feud with the UK’s public broadcaster, it has emerged.
Two senior Iran interrogators pressed detained dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to spy on the agency, Small Media, and the UK’s Department for International Development in return for her freedom, her husband has claimed.
Documents and sources suggest that Small Media was targeted by the Iranians for the apparent spying operation because of a short-lived association between its founder, Mahmood Enayat and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The pair were briefly colleagues at the BBC World Service Trust, a charitable wing of the broadcaster focused on human rights and alleviating poverty in dozens of countries. The work of the trust has infuriated the leadership in Tehran, which sees its work training journalists as an attempt to usurp the regime.
“It’s a personal thing,” said a source with knowledge of the case. “And to be frank, it’s absolutely absurd. Since she left the BBC, we have never seen her since.”
One of the trust’s most successful campaigns was a project called “ZigZag” which enabled young Iranians to develop journalism skills, according to a report by the UK’s Foreign Office published in 2009. It allowed aspiring journalists to generate content for platforms including the BBC’s Persian service.
Tehran is locked in a long-running dispute with the Persian service whose work Iran has decried as a “crime against Iran’s national security”.
"Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe never worked for BBC Persian,” the BBC said in a statement. “She briefly worked for the BBC's international development charity in a junior administrative role based in London. To claim that being employed …. for a short time constitutes working to 'infiltrate' the Iranian regime is ridiculous.”
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested in April 2016, is currently held at Tehran’s Evin prison where she is serving five years for anti-regime activities. Her family have denied she was doing anything wrong and claim she is being used as a pawn in a broader strategic battle between Iran and the West.
The spying-for-freedom offer was made late last year but was not followed up by the authorities after it emerged that it was the final straw that persuaded Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe to go on hunger strike.
Her husband revealed details of the approach on the first day of the three-day protest this month and said that she had never had any connection with Small Media, he said.
Mr Enayat set up Small Media in 2011, company documents show, but last year severed his connections with the group and has gone to work in a senior position for Iran International, a London-based broadcaster that is critical of the regime.
The Guardian newspaper reported last year that the broadcaster had close links to the Saudi leadership, claims denied by the channel.
Mr Enayat was previously the boss of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked in an administrative role at the trust, booking flight tickets and other tasks, but the Iranians have sought to portray her role as being “grander and grander” to try to tie her to a plot to undermine the regime, her husband said.
An Iranian state-run broadcaster aired a documentary earlier this month in which it accused Britain of trying to infiltrate Iran under the guise of BBC journalism training and a series of proxy companies including Small Media.
The documentary – which featured previously unseen footage of the arrest of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe in April 2016 - claimed that the ZigZag project was created to identify, recruit and train “anti-revolution” journalists from within Iran.
It claimed the project was later outsourced to Small Media, an anti-censorship organisation, when the BBC closed down the project in 2010, a claim denied by the group and the corporation.
“It’s all rooted in an attempt to disable BBC Persian and stop it from being effective,” said the source.
Small Media, a non-profit which receives grants from governments and foundations and had turnover of more than £2.8m in 2018, has worked on a series of Iran-linked projects focused on freedom of the internet.
For the first time in its history, the BBC last year appealed to the United Nations to take action against what it said was a sustained campaign of harassment of their staff by the Iranian regime.
Staff said that more than ten London-based members of its Persian service and their families had faced death threats over their reporting with some receiving police protection in the UK. More than 150 members of staff, former employees and contributors had their assets frozen in Iran.
Updated: January 26, 2019 12:20 PM