Next month will mark three years since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken from her family and denied her freedom. She has been detained in an Iranian jail, now, for just over 1000 days, accused of “trying to topple the Iranian government”. Zaghari’s plight – the insurmountable injustice of it all – has been the centre of political and national conversation for just as long. And today, her case is back on the news agenda, after the British government announced she has been granted diplomatic protection. But what does that mean for Zaghari-Ratcliffe? And will it make any tangible difference?
The short answer is not right now. Just hours after Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt invoked the protection order Iran dismissed it as “illegal”, refusing to acknowledge its significance. “UK Govt’s extension of diplomatic protection to Ms Zaghari contravenes int’l law,” Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the UK tweeted this morning. “Govts may only exercise such protection for own nationals. As UK Govt is acutely aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality. Irrespective of UK residency, Ms Zaghari thus remains Iranian.”
It is a crushing blow for the case to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who spent her 40th birthday in prison on Boxing Day yet, perhaps not unexpected to those familiar with the stor . Over the last three years, several efforts to release her from where she is held in a Tehran prison have failed, with the Iranian government insisting that she is a “spy”. In fact, Zaghari-Ratcliffe says, she had travelled to Iran on March 17 2016 to visit family and celebrate Nowruz (Iranian New Year). With her was her then 22-month-old daughter, Gabriella. As she tried to board a flight back to the UK weeks later on April 3, she was arrested by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In September 2016 she was sentenced to five years in prison.
Since then her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and many human rights organisations like Amnesty International have campaigned for her release. More than 1.5million people, from 155 countries, signed a petition calling for her to be freed; Zaghari-Ratcliffe has staged hunger strikes; the government has attempted to intervene – for better or worse – several times. All of these things have been to no avail. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s daughter, now four, has also been unable to leave Iran since her mother’s detainment so that she can visit twice per week. Her father, Richard, was denied a visa to visit his family and so has not seen Gabriella or his wife in person for three years.
For the family, it is bleak and filled with heartbreak. But, while the action to grant her diplomatic protection will not act as a “magic wand”, to use Hunt’s words, in reuniting them, nevertheless it remains a significant move. This is the first time that a diplomatic protection order has been used in more than 100 years and signifies that the this is now officially a formal, legal dispute between the two countries.
While perhaps it isn't the most practically useful order, it does send a strong message, which shouldn’t be underestimated. Not only this, but it gives Britain more power take international legal action (though Hunt indicated that this was unlikely) and also to address the maltreatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe in other international powerhouses like the United Nations. It is by no means a quick fix. But it tells Iran very clearly that Britain is taking this case very seriously, and we will continue to.