'No way to treat a trapped British citizen.' The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Posted On: 
31st January 2017

Barry Rosen was held prisoner in Iran 37 years ago, charged with spying. He was eventually released, but those distant events resonate now with the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose husband fears she is being used by Tehran as a political “bargaining chip”. Sebastian Whale reports 

A vigil is held for British-Iranian mother and charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe outside the Embassy of Iran in London

Droplets of rain reverberated like bullets as they struck Barry Rosen’s office window on the morning of 4 November 1979. The 36-year-old and his staff were sitting anxiously inside the US embassy in Tehran, their nerves fraying as the bleak weather lacerated the building. It had been a fraught two-week period since the US government gave asylum to ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for cancer treatment. Crowds had subsequently congregated outside the embassy walls, taunting its occupants with chants of “death to America”. Today the noise was escalating, the area a hive of activity.

Officials were perplexed by the Carter administration’s inflammatory decision to accept the Shah onto US soil. It had thrown into sharp relief the security measures at the embassy, with hastily erected steel bars around the windows all but trapping them inside as protestors grew in numbers.

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At 10am Rosen, the embassy’s press attache, peeled back the curtain amid a sudden burst of energy outside. Scrubbing away the condensation with the palm of his hand, he peered towards the entrance 50 yards away. Students were scaling the main gate, pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini plastered over their clothes, and they were approaching the building. Moments later the intruders broke into Rosen’s office. He was tied up and arrested for being a member of the “nest of spies”. His plea for his Armenian and Iranian staff to be left alone was heeded, a rare offer of contrition before the months of torture that followed.

For 444 days the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, supporters of the Iranian Revolution, held hostage 52 American diplomats and citizens. Rosen spent the last six months of the crisis in Tehran’s Evin prison. The jail’s notoriety still exists today. It now counts among its occupants, a British-Iranian dual national who, on 9 September 2016, was sentenced to five years in prison on unspecific charges of spying against the state. Her precise reason for arrest has not been clarified, and her conviction was last week upheld in the appeals court. Many other dual nationals of American, Canadian and French descent are facing similar allegations.

Ratcliffe, who works at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was detained at Tehran airport in April. The charity worker’s two-year-old daughter, Gabriella, with her on holiday at the time, has been living with her grandparents in Iran unable to return home ever since. Ratcliffe faced a protracted period in solitary confinement, which came to an end at the start of this year, during which her lawyers say she suffered hair loss and was suicidal. In London, her husband Richard – unable to travel to Iran – has launched a petition signed by more than 850,000 people calling for her release.

Rosen joined the board of pressure group, United Against Nuclear Iran, in May. The group lobbies large corporations against operating in Iran, on the proviso that money coming into the Middle Eastern country helps fund human rights abuses and its nuclear weapons programme. Rosen argues doing business in Iran, which relies on the use of dual nationals, is “nonsensical”. He says it carries the risk of imprisonment, kidnapping, torture, execution and incarceration of staff.

Theresa May raised Ratcliffe’s case with President Rouhani during their first phone call and subsequent face-to-face meeting at the UN. Rosen, however, says such interjections are “absolutely meaningless”, as the Iranian government wields no influence. The power brokers in town are the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a security and military group created after the 1979 revolution to enforce Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic republic, who control the courts. The IRGC arrested Ratcliffe last year, and accuse her of orchestrating a “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic.

The UK government has begun a gradual thawing of relations with Tehran, particularly since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. On 5 September, the UK appointed an ambassador to Iran for the first time since 2011, a year after reopening the British embassy. Ratcliffe was handed her prison sentence less than a week later. “Now, is that accidental? No, it is not accidental,” Rosen says.

“The Revolutionary Guards are the ones who are really holding the ball within Iran and they are embarrassing President Rouhani. At the same time, they are showing the west that they can do with impunity anything they want. The British government really does not have any real way of getting Nazanin Ratcliffe out right now,” he adds.

“This case is a warning from the IRGC, in fact, to Great Britain, to the industries in Great Britain, to the companies in Great Britain. This is a warning: do not come here …

“The Iranian government has nothing to say about it. They really have no power.”

The Foreign Office says it is “deeply concerned” by reports that Ratcliffe was sentenced without confirmation of the charges made against her, and ministers are “working hard to ensure her welfare is protected”. Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood has met members of the Ratcliffe family in London and Tehran, while Boris Johnson and the prime minister continue to raise her case with their Iranian equivalents.

“While we continue to press the Iranians for consular access and for due process to be followed, we also stand ready to help get her daughter back safely to the UK if requested,” a spokeswoman added.

Nazanin Ratcliffe is a constituent of Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq, who has raised her case at prime minister’s questions. She is heavily critical of the government’s response, saying it has “provided little in the way of tangible action, mostly offering vague comments saying that they have been in touch with their Iranian counterparts”.

“In reality, this means raising Nazanin’s case as a diplomatic afterthought, rather than an urgent priority. This is no way to treat a British citizen trapped abroad,” she says.

Siddiq argues ministers should seek confirmation from Iran over why Ratcliffe was detained, and evidence that supports the charges in question.

“Unfortunately, Nazanin’s case is not an isolated one. I have total sympathy with families of those detained who are dismayed at the apparent charm offensive towards Iran. The government must conduct its foreign policy responsibly, and that means asserting our commitment to universal standards of human rights, not least when the lives of our civilians are at stake,” she adds.

Richard Ratcliffe, meanwhile, has written to President Rouhani in a bid to secure a visa to visit Iran. He contends that his wife is being used as a “bargaining chip for international and domestic politics”, and has argued her arrest stems from an historic debt owed by Britain to Iran over a decades’ old arms deal.

For Barry Rosen, who was charged with spying against the Iranian state 37 years ago, Nazanin Ratcliffe’s case is all too familiar. Though he fears there is little to be done, he urges Richard Ratcliffe to continue his work campaigning for her release, and not to take his feet off the pedal.

“My feeling is that the family has to continue with their petition, have to continue as much as they possibly can under very difficult circumstances. I think they have to keep their lines of communication open with the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry. Always, always keeping the pressure on the government to do whatever it possibly can. There’s no other avenue, there really is no other avenue,” he says, his voice lowering.

Rosen was one of the longest serving embassy officials in Tehran, after joining in November 1978. He “fell in love” with Iran when he first visited the country as a Peace Corps volunteer between 1967 and 1969. He entered the US embassy having just become a father for the second time. On 14 February 1979, he experienced his first embassy siege, when gunmen stormed the building before the Iranian government sent security forces to thwart the attackers. That raid came three days after the Iranian Revolution overthrew Shad Pahlavi and instated Ayatollah Khomeini as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s supreme leader.

The Shah was accused of committing crimes against Iranians through the conduit of his secret police, the Savak. In 1953, a coup led by US and UK intelligence agencies had ousted then-Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to strengthen the Shah. The decision by the US to grant the Shah asylum sparked fears of another coup and was seen as an endorsement of his alleged indiscretions in the eyes of the revolutionaries.

The November siege was a different ball game to the warm-up act nine months earlier. Prisoners were force fed, tortured and beaten – Rosen spits out the word ‘okra’ as though he has never gone near the vegetable since. As the press attache, Rosen stood accused of “building up a force of spies within Iran to undermine the Iranian government”.

“From their point of view they thought I was some sort of 007, that I was somehow converting the Iranian newspaper industry into conspiring for the United States,” he explains.

Rosen was kept blindfolded for the first three months of the siege; his only respite coming from brief visits to the bathroom. He was subject to mock executions, and recounts the experiences with haunting detail.

“One night in my cell, which was down in the basement of the embassy, I was sleeping. These two thugs came in dressed in black, a covering over their heads. They opened up the door, smashed it; put me up against the wall. They put an automatic weapon against my head and squeezed the trigger.

“C-l-i-c-k,” he adds, pausing between each letter as the memory jolts back into view. The weapon was not loaded, but the torture still weighs heavily on the now 73-year-old, who suffers from PTSD to this day.

On a second occasion he was instructed to confess to his alleged crimes of spying against the state. “Sign this, I’ll give you 10 seconds or else I’ll have your head shot off,” a guard demanded. His voice croaks as he laments signing the document five seconds into the countdown while a guard pointed a gun at his face. “I felt I had done myself a tremendous disservice. I couldn’t forgive myself,” he says.

Rosen wrote of his experiences in the book, The Destined Hour, upon his return to the US. He retired from his subsequent career as press officer for various American universities in 2016, having left the Foreign Service following the hostage crisis.

The 37 of the 52 US hostages that remain still meet regularly. In 2011, they congregated at West Point, where the survivors returned to US shores 30 years earlier.

Rosen remains committed to ensuring the plight suffered by Nazanin Ratcliffe and her family becomes a thing of the past. Only by withdrawing business and links from the “leading terrorist state” can such cases be avoided, he pressed.

As for the charming, erudite New Yorker, he still carries the weight of his own experience. His energy is now devoted to ensuring others are more fortunate.