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Lord Maginnis: UK must defend both dual nationals and native Iranians against human rights abuses

7 min read

Member of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF) Lord Maginnis of Drumglass writes that efforts to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe must not be at the expense of the defence of every innocent person in Iran and that only domestic & international pressure 'will bring Iran to heel on all fronts'.

In April 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at the Tehran airport while trying to return with her two-year-old daughter to the UK after a vacation to visit family in Iran. The child’s passport was confiscated and she has been separated from her British father ever since. Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was deprived of due process, subjected to vague national security charges, and sentenced to five years in prison. Now the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is spearheading an effort to add new charges based on the same so-called evidence and expand her sentence by as much as 16 years.

In the months following her arrest, the UK government came under fire for its nearly complete silence on the plight of Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This month, the Foreign Office finally responded to the pressure and spoke out to demand the release of the British-Iranian dual national. Now, it appears that the government is keen to dispel public attention for its long period of inaction. In the interest of doing so, it may be poised to take steps that could resolve the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case but also exacerbate the threat to other Western nationals while also contributing to the much larger problem of Iran’s human rights abuses.
Of course one feels deeply for the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family but is it strategically justifiable to yield to Iranian blackmail that can so simply be repeated again and again?

In the immediate aftermath of the Foreign Office’s public statements, it was reported that the government was considering handing over 400 million pounds to Tehran, ostensibly as repayment for a debt dating from before the Iranian Revolution. Coinciding so closely with Johnson’s planned trip to visit Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, it will be difficult for the government to convincingly deny that this “debt repayment” is actually an offer of ransom for the freedom of an unjustly imprisoned British national.

Admittedly, this would be in keeping with Western powers’ recent policies toward the Islamic Republic. Much of Europe has been eager to pursue closer ties with Iran, particularly in areas of commerce. Some policymakers have built a narrative of internal moderation of the Islamic regime around President Hassan Rouhani, in order to justify the pursuit of trade agreements and the provision of tens of billions of pounds’ worth of sanctions relief to the Iranian government and state-linked businesses.

In the context of that narrative, it is easy to see what the argument would be for paying ransom in the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case. One might argue that doing so would immediately save a British citizen from the peril and indignity of the Iranian prison system while also engendering good will among the Iranian people by giving money to officials who are more likely to spend it on the needs of citizens. But there are obvious problems with each part of this claim.

In the first place, ransom payments only prove to adversarial forces that they can profit from hostage-taking. And Iran seemingly already recognizes this as a potentially lucrative endeavour. In January 2016, the US released or dropped charged against 21 Iranians in exchange for four Americans who had been subjected to trumped-up charges like those that would later be issued against Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The US also delivered 700 million dollars in cash to the Islamic Republic on the day of the prisoner exchange, describing it in now familiar terms as the partial repayment of an old debt.

Less than two years later, at least four other Americans are in Iranian jails, apparently awaiting their use as similar bargaining chips. This is unlikely to be acceptable to the current US government, which has taken appropriate steps to reverse the conciliatory policies of the Obama administration; putting greater pressure on the Islamic Republic to stop its missile tests, its regional adventurism, and its human rights abuses. President Donald Trump has called for the unconditional release of American hostages; and while this may not be as immediately effective as simply paying for their release, it will have none of the negative consequences.

The argument in favour of ransom is badly misguided in its assumption that the Rouhani government will use newly released assets to the benefit of the Iranian people. He has never done this during more than four years in office, and neither have other leading officials in the Islamic Republic. Since taking office in 2013, Rouhani has repeatedly boosted funding for the Revolutionary Guards in general and specifically for the missile programs they control and the Quds Force that they use to spread the Islamic revolution beyond Iran’s borders.

Rouhani earned his reputation as a moderate in large part because of his role in securing the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. But nothing that he has done domestically has backed up this image, and many human rights organizations have called attention to the fact that various issues have actually gotten worse since he took office. This fact was underscored by the latest United Nations resolution on Iran’s persistent human rights violations, which was passed by 83 member states at the General Assembly on November 14.

Rouhani’s lack of concern for the rights and the demands of his own people was made evident soon after his election to a first term when he appointed as Justice Minister a key participant in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoner in the summer of 1988. The president repeated this performance at the start of his second term when public pressure led to him removing Mostafa Pourmohammadi only to replace him with someone who had played a similar role during the massacre, albeit in a different region of Iran.

Rouhani’s refusal to actually change the make-up of his cabinet is by no means the only popular demand that he and the Iranian regime as a whole have disregarded in recent months. The Paris-based coalition of Iranian activists and expatriates known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran has called attention to thousands of protests that have taken place inside Iran this year alone, many of them decrying the regime’s costly efforts to preserve the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. “Forget about Iran; focus on us!” the protestors have been heard to chant.

This serves to further illustrate the fact that regardless of the specific composition of the Iranian government, any money that is handed over to it will only be misallocated to projects aimed at either improving the regime’s global profile or suppressing domestic dissent. What’s more, the protests also highlight the fact that there is no need for Western powers to court the friendship of the Iranian people. Those people are already our friends. They are also overwhelmingly opposed to their clerical rulers, and any conciliation or provision of cash to those rulers is a betrayal of our friendship.

It should not be necessary to explain the peril of paying ransom for persons held hostage in Iran. But as long as any Western policymaker is considering such a move, it is important to demand that the defence of a person like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe be put in context of the defence of every innocent person in Iran. Simultaneous domestic and international pressure will bring Iran to heel on all fronts; but promoting one person’s cause at the expense of another’s will only divide allies against one another. And division only gives Iran greater power.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass is an independent Ulster Unionist member of the UK House of Lords and prominent member of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF),

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