To the delight of all, UK national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has finally been released after six years of detention on the most bogus of charges in Iran. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Wednesday confirmed that London had paid £400 million ($525 million) of “legitimate debt” to Tehran and received assurances that it would only be used for humanitarian purposes. The debt originated in the 1970s, when the shah of Iran paid for 1,500 British tanks but, before he could take delivery, was ousted by the current regime, which subsequently became the biggest exporter of terror around the globe.
The UK government rightly decided that the delivery of cutting-edge military equipment to such a regime was not responsible. But the mullahs never gave up on getting their refund and resorted to their well-practiced policy of hostage diplomacy. Such hostage taking has been part of the Islamic Republic’s “diplomatic” arsenal from its very foundation in 1979, starting with the notorious Iran hostage crisis, which saw the new regime in Tehran hold dozens of American diplomatic personnel for more than a year.
These days, foreign citizens are not swept up in assaults on embassies. They are instead arrested as individuals on spurious charges of espionage or other threats to the regime and convicted in highly opaque and politically motivated trials. They are then held as bargaining chips for negotiations with the countries of origin of these hapless civilians.
However, 40 years since Tehran pioneered this technique, it is perplexing that it is still effective. The people of Britain were broadly aware of the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and they all believed that what happened to her was a travesty of justice. We all demanded that the British government secure her release, but none of us believed that the original injustice was perpetrated by anyone other than the Iranian government and few were putting pressure on the British government to yield to Tehran’s whims or desires on anything.
All the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case will have achieved is anger, dismay, broken trust and more hostility toward Tehran in general
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
So whatever pressure the situation exerted on London, it was certainly not in the direction of being favorable or sympathetic to Tehran’s goals. If anything, the opposite was true. Even those of us who acknowledge the really dark history of British involvement in Iranian affairs — such as the deposing of the democratic government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 and the subsequent British support for the brutal autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi — instantly lose sympathy with Tehran when it treats innocent civilians such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who are not only British but indeed born and raised Iranian, with this kind of inhumanity. When we call on our government to “do something” for Zaghari-Ratcliffe or Kylie Moore-Gilbert, we are not asking that they yield anything to favor Iran.
Most of Europe believed that Iran was the injured party when the US walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal during the Trump administration. The Obama administration had put in that deal a robust compliance regime to make sure that Tehran held up its end of the deal — and, so far as any of us know, it did indeed honor its commitments. It is for that reason that Britain, along with its European allies, remained steadfast in favor of the deal and why we would have effectively been arguing for Iran’s side in the negotiations to reinstate the agreement under the Biden administration.
London did not need any encouragement or coercion on that point from Iran. And yet Iran sought to exert leverage on the British government in the form of taking innocent citizens hostage. And all that will have achieved is anger, dismay, broken trust and more hostility toward Tehran in general. It is all shockingly counterproductive.
The JCPOA had been a welcome first step toward the normalization of relations between Iran and the West, and a promising step toward a lasting peace. We continue to hope for and work toward peace. But hostage diplomacy, as practiced by Iran, is barbaric and inhumane. This makes even the would-be peacemakers in the West hostile to the regime, while giving more ammunition to the war hawks.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim