America is not the only country that has a recurring problem with Iran’s business practices, specifically the practice of grabbing hostages as a money-making business.
Perhaps embarrassingly – and certainly inconveniently – for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, one of the latest unwilling pawns in Iran’s game of ransoms is a British-Iranian aid worker and mother, Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe.
Zagari-Ratcliffe holds dual citizenship and is married to Richard Ratcliffe, a native of London. She visited her parents in Tehran last April, a trip she had made three previous times in the past five years without incident according to her husband. This time, however, she and her 22-month-old daughter were detained when attempting to leave the country. Zagari-Ratcliffe was held and, in September, sentenced to five years in prison on unspecified charges after a secret trial. Her daughter, who does not hold Iranian citizenship, is still with her grandparents, because Iranian authorities seized the toddler’s British passport when her mother was arrested.
In other words, just business as usual for the Islamic Republic.
Ratcliffe initially stayed quiet about his wife’s plight, hoping that doing so would allow his government more room to work. He was reportedly told not to travel to Iran, and has not done so, but he has become openly critical about his own government’s response. Because Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, government officials insist Zagari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance. The British government has not insisted otherwise, nor pursued other avenues as far as Ratcliffe knows. “They have never publicly called for her release, they never criticized her treatment,” he observed in an interview earlier this month. He has also said he is trying to reunite with his daughter, who has been separated from both her parents since April.
Unfortunately, hopes for an end to the saga without British intervention have grown dimmer for the family. In a secret hearing, Zagari-Ratcliffe’s appeal was reportedly dismissed earlier this month. The charges against her remain secret, but the Iranians took the opportunity to add two new accusations at the appeal, signaling they had no interest in releasing her any time soon.
May sees herself as “clear-eyed” about the nature of the Iranian regime, but she also contends that the controversial nuclear accord with Tehran, which was supported by her government and ours along with Russia and three other Western powers, is “vital.” President Donald Trump has severely criticized the deal – though he has not said whether he will scrap it – and May has promised to try to persuade Trump to leave the agreement in place. We can rest assured, however, that others who see themselves as even more clear-eyed about Iran and, not coincidentally, who are much closer to it geographically, will be trying to persuade Trump in the opposite direction. Those nations include Israel and Saudi Arabia.
At least Britain didn’t send Tehran a planeload of untraceable cash in exchange for the simultaneous release of prisoners held on bogus charges. That folly belongs to former President Barack Obama. But Britain continues to be a major hub for airline flights to Iran by Western airlines. Each flight delivers more potential hostages for what the folks at Uber might call Iran’s “side hustle,” which supplements the oil trade that was boosted by the relaxation of sanctions as part of the nuclear accord. (Of course I mean no disrespect to Uber. The U.S. company has the good sense or legal advice not to operate in Iran, although the country has analogous ride-sharing services of its own.)
Maybe Trump will opt to ban Americans from traveling to Iran in an effort to cut down on the regime’s hostage inventory. May’s government would be well-advised to follow suit, along with eliminating direct air connections between Iran and Britain. Of course the Iranians will threaten to blow up the nuclear accord if Trump and May take such actions. Trump can probably advise May that, when you are negotiating with someone, it is not smart to label the thing they can take away from you as “vital.”
The good news for May is that if the accord and its relaxation of trade sanctions wasn’t at least equally vital to the Iranians, they would not have agreed to the deal in the first place. And if they walk away, well, a certain former president promised all of us that sanctions would snap back. It is a fair guess that the Trump administration’s response would be even snappier than Obama’s.
None of this helps Zagari-Ratcliffe or her family, however. She is just the latest unfortunate loser in a game that Western governments have permitted Iran to play for far too long.