Britain rebukes Iran’s use of hostages as foreign policy tactic

Transparency is a welcomed turn in Britain’s approach to Iran’s use of British hostages but the proscription of Iran-funded militants and terrorists will not stand in the way of the use of hostages as political cards.

Saturday 29/06/2019
Low priority. Richard Ratcliffe holds a sign for his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, during his vigil outside the Iranian Embassy in London, June 16.(AP)
Low priority. Richard Ratcliffe holds a sign for his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, during his vigil outside the Iranian Embassy in London, June 16.(AP)

The behavioural habit turned foreign policy approach of hostage-taking by Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s government preserves a rogue tradition that extends to the 1979 hostage crisis.

Mob attacks, embassy raids and Iran-sponsored threat activity on British and European soil are no longer simply trails but hallmarks of Iran’s high-risk foreign policy approach.

In the last year, the rising wave of an approach dubbed “hostage diplomacy” pushed Westminster to issue stern warnings that indicate the risks for dual nationals travelling to Iran.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, former Thomson Reuters Foundation staff member, and British Council employee Aras Amiri, both taken in Iran, are the latest victims of Iran’s retributive approach as sanctions raise the chances of domestic economic meltdown for Tehran’s obdurate clerical rulers.

Iran accused the two British nationals of cooperating with British intelligence. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, sentenced to 5 years in prison, and Amiri, sentenced to 10 years in prison, are in Iran’s Evin Prison.

At the time the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) posted online advising: “British-Iranian dual nationals against all travel to Iran; all British nationals should carefully consider the risks of travelling.”

In contrast to measured advice from the FCO, the fires of Iran’s fallacy over Ratcliffe were stoked by clumsy remarks from Tory front runner for prime minister Boris Johnson. At the time, then-foreign minister Johnson, in tune with Tehran, wrongly alleged that the charity worker was training journalists in Iran.

His remarks earned Johnson the accusation that his verbal recklessness helped to expedite the spying charge that landed the mother jail.

Iran’s ambassador has defended decisions reached in her case, posting on Twitter:

“[I]f… you are not collaborating with intelligence agencies” or “collecting classified information from them, you may safely travel.”

Iran proclaims adherence to pragmatism but is upping the ante through “continued arbitrary detention” and “mistreatment” of British citizens associated with government-associated institutions and “lack of access to legal rights” to those incarcerated on spying charges, as UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote in May.

Richard Radcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, has been staging his own peaceful protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in solidarity with his wife’s hunger strike in exchange for unconditional release.

Richard has kept a daily video diary. Speaking on day 11 about the policies politics and parliament can push for to assist “beyond Nazanin’s case,” he urged focus on two aspects.

“One for Iranian audiences is the way Iran does use people as diplomatic leverage… and as bargaining chips,” he said in a video posted on a page dedicated to the cause of freedom for Nazanin.

Richard also added that the government has not done enough to protect the rights of British citizens held unlawfully overseas.

While Nazanin informed authorities of her hunger strike, Iranian authorities responded by cancelling the mother’s weekly visit to see her daughter and in London, embassy staff erected a metal barricade between Richard and the embassy as the pressure mounts from the public and MPs from all parties that have been visited by the anguished father.

These events expose Iran’s insecurities. But they have not deterred its state media from advancing an audacious defence of the decision to imprison Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the true intentions of her visit to Iran two years ago.

Opinion articles and online commentaries protest the deadlock in Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and its apparent low rank on the government’s list of political priorities.

Richard underlined during an interview with BBC that “if you point the finger at the UK, all you are doing is exculpating those who are truly responsible, which is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”

An article published in the Times late last year disclosed details of a potential deal spearheaded by Hunt to settle a 400 million pound ($507 million) debt to Iran in exchange for her release.

Although Britain remained relatively mute about snowballing hostilities between the United States and Iran, direct comments from Hunt and others mark newfound courage by the government to rebuke Iran for its hostage-taking industry.

An expose in the Daily Telegraph newspaper suggested that the UK government intentionally kept the public in the dark about an alleged terror plot masterminded by Iran-funded Lebanese outfit Hezbollah that MI5 foiled after a tip from Israel’s intelligence arm, Mossad.

Independent members of Britain’s House of Commons are raising scrutiny by quizzing the government on why details of the raid were kept secret.

In defying its own promises of diplomatic engagement, Tehran’s conduct will erode surviving goodwill between both countries whose relations improved only after the expiry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

The desirability of rapprochement that Britain prefers will also face setbacks should relations maintain this tempo.

The case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe exposes the self-limiting approach Britain has adopted, having failed to secure her release, despite calls from her husband to “use aid for Iran to free her,” the Independent reported.

Despite granting the UK-Iranian dual citizen “diplomatic protection” on March 7, a decision slammed by some as too little too late, that designation is not an impenetrable shield that can protect her against harm and medical negligence in response to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s hunger strike, which she began January 14.

Britain is also accused of prolonging the move to proscribe Hezbollah, which was expedited in February. The decision was welcomed by Hunt, who, on Twitter, said: “We cannot and will not turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s terrorist activities,” adding that “they will be proscribed in full by the UK government.”

Indirect actions or inconsistency on Britain’s part stimulated the view of the ban and associated moves as the country testing its luck at politicking.

The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent provided greater depth to this argument over Twitter, stating that it “ticks many boxes” that gives “UK something to say… pleases US and Israeli allies who want more pressure on Iran” and allows the conservative party camp to “highlight Labour leadership sympathy for anti-Israel groups” towards the aim of “look[ing] tough in the leadership race.”

Transparency is a welcomed turn in Britain’s approach to Iran’s use of British hostages but the proscription of Iran-funded militants and terrorists will not stand in the way of the use of hostages as political cards.

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