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Iran’s Hostage Game Continues

outdoor sign that reads Foreign and Commonwealth Office
photo courtesy the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Married couples celebrate many milestones together, but few of them are forced to mark the anniversary of one spouse’s government-sponsored kidnapping.

Unfortunately, Richard Ratcliffe and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe marked just such a sad milestone in April. I wrote in January about Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight: The 38-year-old charity worker was detained in April 2016 while visiting relatives along with her young daughter. Now, over a year later, Iran continues to insist that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was a “ringleader” of plot to overthrow the government, allegations that her husband has labeled “preposterous and completely false.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has not been informed of these charges directly, despite the fact she has been convicted; any known specifics come from Iranian media reports. Nor has she been allowed to contact the British embassy, because Iran does not recognize the concept of dual citizenship.

The couple’s daughter, now approaching her third birthday, is a British citizen but remains with her grandparents, since Iranian officials confiscated her passport. The United Kingdom has offered to issue temporary travel documents to allow embassy personnel to return the little girl to London. Yet while Ratcliffe wants his daughter home, it would cut off the child’s infrequent contact with her mother and remove one of his wife’s sole comforts. It is a choice no father would want to face.

In reading the recent profile of Ratcliffe in The Wall Street Journal, it is impossible not feel compassion for this family, and by extension for all the families torn apart by Iran’s practice of seizing hostages for leverage, cash or both. At least four American and five British dual nationals are currently detained in Iran, typically on charges of espionage or disparaging Iran’s government.

While Iran is obviously to blame for his wife’s detention, Ratcliffe clearly feels frustration with his own government’s continuing inaction. He said he has asked U.K. officials whether a deal to retrieve his wife is possible, but reports no reply. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has publicly stated that it is “deeply concerned,” and that officials have “raised her case with their counterparts in Iran and will continue to do so.” Ratcliffe, meanwhile, continues to work for his wife’s release and his daughter’s return largely without any sense of concrete government support.

On April 2, one year after Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest, her friends and family gathered to tie yellow ribbons to trees in a park near the couple’s London home. An Amnesty International representative also marked the occasion by renewing the call for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. “Nazanin is by no means the only prisoner of conscience in Iran who should be released this Nowruz - but if she’s set free and allowed to return to her family in the U.K. in the coming days, it will be a small but hugely valuable victory for human rights in Iran,” said Kathy Voss, a campaigner for Amnesty International U.K. Individuals at Risk.

Iran has found American hostages very profitable ever since the U.S. Embassy seizure in 1979. Every time the United States compensates Iran for the return of hostages, it is a “one time” event – until the next time. We should not be terribly shocked that Tehran is trying its luck with Britain as well. The truth is that once hostages are already in Iran’s hands, there is no good option to move forward, only bad and worse.

The appropriate response on the part of both London and Washington would be to sever direct air links with Iran, prohibiting their nations’ carriers from serving that country, and to prohibit or severely restrict travel by their nationals to Iran to cut down the supply of potential hostages. I say this in full knowledge that there are many thousands of people in both countries who have family connections in Iran – Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in the country in the first place in order to visit her parents – and that such restrictions will create hardship for them. A travel ban, or something close to it, would also mean the loss of business opportunities.

But had these rules been in place a year or two ago, which would have been fully justified, the Ratcliffe family would not be suffering the way they are today. And Iran’s hostage takers would lack the leverage they now believe they have to extract further concessions.

The only effective way to deal with hostage takers is to take the profit out of the activity. That means not paying ransom for hostages already seized and cutting off the supply of future captives. It’s long past time for governments on both sides of the Atlantic to recognize Iran for what it is, and to act accordingly.

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