Amid British-Iranian Prisoners' Homecoming, West Grapples With Tehran's 'Hostage Diplomacy'
By Henry Ridgwell March 17, 2022
Two British-Iranian nationals who had been jailed in Iran arrived Thursday in Britain to emotional homecomings.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was met by her husband Richard Ratcliffe, and their daughter, Gabriella, 7, at the Brize Norton air force base west of London in the early hours of Thursday morning. It was the first time the family had been together in six years.
Also on the flight was British-Iranian businessman Anoosheh Ashoori, 67, who was jailed in 2017 for espionage.
Few details have emerged on the negotiations for the pair's freedom, but London confirmed that it had repaid a long-standing debt to Tehran ahead of the detainees' release. Critics say Iran is increasingly engaging in "hostage diplomacy" in its dealings with the West.
Speaking hours before his wife's arrival home, Richard Ratcliffe described their emotions.
"We can stop being a moment in history and start being a normal family again," he told reporters in London. "It's been a long time, hasn't it? We were just saying, you know, last night, Gabriella was asking us, 'Is Mummy really coming back tomorrow?' I said, 'Well, I don't, I don't know for sure. I think we're closer.' I now know pretty surely she is coming home."
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in 2016 while returning from a holiday seeing family and was convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. She was repeatedly held in solitary confinement.
Ashoori was detained while visiting his mother in Tehran in August 2017 and jailed for espionage. His family said he had been tortured.
Both Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori have consistently denied the charges and believe they were victims of "hostage diplomacy" by Tehran.
Negotiations between London and Tehran for their release had been going on for several months.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss gave few details as she spoke Thursday to reporters at Brize Norton.
"I thank the families for how stoical they've been during this really, really difficult period," Truss said. "We talked about the process that we've been through, the difficult last part of making sure that they were able to leave Iran. But it's so fantastic to welcome them back safe and well here in Britain."
$530 million debt
Britain confirmed that in recent days it had paid a $530 million debt owed to Iran for an unfulfilled order of tanks and other weapons, dating back more than 40 years.
The order was placed in the 1970s by then-Iranian leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When he was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Britain refused to deliver the tanks or repay the money. The British government cited concerns about human rights abuses, alleged support for terrorism and proxy militias in the region, and global sanctions against Iran.
Britain said it had received guarantees that the repaid debt would be used only for humanitarian purposes.
Both Britain and Iran denied Wednesday's prisoner release was related to the debt. Tehran, however, will see this as a victory, said analyst Allan Hassaniyan of the University of Exeter.
"Most importantly for Iran, it is a kind of victory, seeing that they can, through untraditional means and mechanisms, blackmail and extort the international community," he said.
Many other dual nationality citizens are still being detained in Iran, including American, Australian, Canadian and European nationals.
"I don't think it will be the final one and we will see the repetition of this pattern ... both as a measure of leverage to access financial resources but also when it comes to negotiating on different matters, among them the nuclear deal and so on," Hassaniyan told VOA.
Iran and six world powers are negotiating the resurrection of the 2015 nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, which saw a lifting of some Western sanctions in return for limits on Iran's nuclear program. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, citing Iran's ballistic missile program and support for proxy militias in the region. Tehran resumed its nuclear enrichment program in 2019.
Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Other geopolitical forces are at play, said Hassaniyan.
"Iran is negotiating a new nuclear deal with the West, including Russia," he said. "And then we have a very deteriorated Iranian economy, resulting in different kinds of internal issues. We have the Ukrainian-Russian war, which has really provided [Iran] with a kind of opportunity, but also very big difficulties for the West, especially when it comes to the access to energy sources."
A lifting of sanctions on Iran under a new nuclear deal could boost global oil supplies. Prices were high on the agenda as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week.
Prime minister's role
Johnson's role in Iran's detention of Zaghari-Ratcliffe is under scrutiny. In 2017 â€” as then-British foreign secretary â€” he wrongly claimed that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran to train journalists.
Richard Ratcliffe campaigned tirelessly for his wife's release. Last year he went on a hunger strike outside Britain's Foreign Office. Speaking Wednesday, he said lessons must be learned.
"I'm relieved that the problem's been solved," he said. "I think the government has two jobs: protect people in situations like this, to make sure it doesn't happen again. Part of that is to do what you need to do to get people home, and part of that is making sure those who took part learn the lesson not to continue doing that. That second part is for another day, but for today, I'm really glad about the way things went."
For the freed prisoners and their families, debate over the shifting geopolitics that may have led to their release is for another day. Writing on Twitter beneath a picture of the reunited family, Ratcliffe's sister Rebecca said, "A little girl has finally got her mummy and daddy back."
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