x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

Effort to free British mother from Iranian prison will be a 'long haul'

Former British ambassador to Tehran says UK government’s ability to negotiate release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is limited

Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe family / Reuters
Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe family / Reuters

The campaign to free a British woman from an Iranian jail will be protracted as the UK lacks the diplomatic bargaining power to persuade Tehran to act, a former ambassador said on Tuesday.

Boris Johnson, Britain’s under-fire foreign secretary, is due to visit Iran when he will raise the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained since April 2016 after being accused of trying to topple the government.

Richard Dalton, the UK’s ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2006, said on Tuesday that the foreign secretary’s options are limited and he warned that resolution of the case was unlikely to be swift.

The woman’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has set a target of bringing her home this year.

“I think this is going to be a long haul,” said Mr Dalton. “It’s not clear just what Mr Johnson could bring to Iran that would help persuade them that it’s in Iran’s interest to release her.

“If any [there is] diplomacy which connects it with other matters, it has to be done in secret,” he told the BBC.

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Mr Johnson is due to meet the detained woman’s husband this week. Mr Ratcliffe has urged him to raise the stakes in negotiations with the Iranians by conferring “diplomatic protection” on his wife, a rarely-used legal tool which could result in further sanctions against Tehran.

Mr Ratcliffe, an accountant, revealed on Sunday that campaigners had written to the UK government two months ago to urge the move. Mr Johnson said that he would consider the matter, which would raise the case to a formal legal dispute between the two countries, Mr Ratcliffe said.

“I don’t understand it,” said Mr Dalton. “If it’s a suggestion that somehow Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe can be turned into a diplomatic official for the purpose of extracting her from a prison, that’s not going to work.”

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is one of eight people with dual Iranian and foreign nationality held in prison in Iran as of last month, according to the New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

They include one other Briton – grandfather Kamal Foroughi, 78, – an oil and gas consultant who has been held for more than six years for alleged espionage. Four others are from North America and another two lived in Europe. The later arrests were part of an emerging pattern since the 2015 nuclear deal, said the UN.

Compared with other families, Mr Ratcliffe has been highly vocal despite being warned by the UK government that his comments against the regime and its treatment of his wife could potentially harm her prospects of release.

She was first detained at Tehran Airport as she prepared to leave the country after a family trip with her then 18-month-old daughter, Gabriella.

Gabriella remains in Iran with her maternal grandparents. Mr Ratcliffe has not been allowed into the country to see them since the arrest.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked as a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the news organisation. She has been accused of working with the company and her previous employer, the BBC, to overthrow the government.

Her employers denied she was in Iran to do any work on behalf of the organisation, and her supporters say she is a pawn in a broader political game. Mr Johnson faced calls for his resignation after he suggested to MPs that she was in the country to train journalists.

His comments were seized on by the Iranian government, and Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken to court and warned that she faced an extension to her five-year jail term. Mr Johnson apologised on Monday and admitted to MPs that he had made a mistake.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is suffering from depression and health problems and was taken to hospital at the weekend for tests following a breast cancer scare, her husband said.