At last Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is recognised for what she always was – a British citizen deserving of basic rights

No thanks to Boris Johnson, her pursuit of freedom is now looking considerably more hopeful

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 08 March 2019 16:52 GMT
'We're in a scary place' Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband describes his wife's condition as her hunger strike begins

Finally, finally, FINALLY! Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been granted diplomatic protection by the Foreign Office. Previously, although the UK was representing Nazanin’s interests, because she was a dual national, we had not thrown our full weight behind her. Now we have.

Nazanin has been used as a pawn by the Iranian government, locked up in jail ever since a visit to family for the Iranian new year in March 2016. She has done nothing wrong whatsoever. Her daughter, who was one when they were separated, has been raised in the meantime by Nazanin’s parents. Imagine, if your heart can take it, just how much Nazanin has missed of those precious and irretrievable toddler years: the bedtime snuggles, the babbling and the talking, the hide-and-seek, the giggles and tenderness, and every glorious moment that turns parents to mush.

All she has is maddeningly brief Sunday visits.

Her husband Richard hasn’t even had those. One minute he’s a happy husband and father to a gorgeous baby in London, working as an accountant and living a normal life; the next, he’s thrown into a tyrannical state’s Kafkaesque vortex of a legal system, in which human rights count for precious little, and finds himself fighting to wrest his wife and child from their clutches.

They have denied Richard a visitor’s visa. Little Gabriella – their daughter – has been in Iran for so long that she has forgotten how to speak English. Imagine your child losing the language that you once used to tell her that you love her. This is the human cost.

With this new development comes renewed hope. Nazanin’s status as a dual national made anything less than a full-blooded attempt by the UK to confront Iran pretty ineffectual. By conferring diplomatic protection on Nazanin, the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has at last squared up to the Iranian government and claimed her as our own. Hunt’s move has elevated Nazanin’s case into a state-to-state conflict; effectively, it says that we – the UK – are Nazanin, and that what is done to her is done to us.

This is what Richard Ratcliffe, Amnesty International, and all of Nazanin’s supporters have been fighting for: for her adopted country, and the place where she and her four-year-old daughter belong at home with Richard, to make a meaningful stand for her.

This is the first time since 1951 that a foreign secretary has exercised this law. Back then, the UK’s beef – again, coincidentally, with Iran, albeit a very different Iran to the one we see today – concerned the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the precursor to BP.

That year, the people of Iran had democratically elected a secular prime minister in Mohammad Mosaddegh, who sought to nationalise Iranian oil, taking it out of the hands of British interests. Diplomatic protection was granted to the company by the British government, and this then became a battle between two states. With the support of British and American state funding and intelligence, Mosaddegh’s government was overthrown in a coup d’etat, quashing Iran’s fledgling democracy. Power was funnelled back towards the “puppet shah” Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who annoyed people so much – with his secret police and his general disregard for the less bejewelled sections of the populace (ie most people) – that, in 1979, they revolted.

It is often called the “Islamic Revolution”, but it was not supposed to be: it was a people’s revolution. The ayatollahs were viewed at the time as the only plausible alternatives to take the reins, and few could have predicted how quickly they would plunge this beautiful, secular country – this ancient civilisation – into the darkness of religious dogma, nor how they would throttle, and continue to throttle, the life and hope out of its people.

We Iranians don’t see ourselves the way that so much of the world sees us. We – the people, not the state – have a hugely forward-thinking and tolerant culture. We have to. Iran is a mishmash of so many different races, cultures, languages, and religions that we’d have a rotten time if we weren’t tolerant. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described the Persians as “chameleons”. The current government does not reflect this. It is a source of great annoyance and pain to the rest of us.

I’m being quite diplomatic here myself, as those of you who are familiar with Nazanin’s plight will recognise. I’m not going to dwell on Boris Johnson, who, in his time as foreign secretary, cared so little about this woman and her family that he failed to do even the most basic research before he spoke, and consequently made the situation far worse for a time. There are more important issues right now than one man’s vanity and rank incompetence, but I won’t forget that neither his professionalism nor his emotional range could stretch to an appreciation of just how much damage he might do.

With the Iranian new year upon us again on the 21st of this month, marking three years of imprisonment for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, I’m turning instead to hope, for her and her family’s future. This historically Zoroastrian celebration brings people together every year from across cultural and ethnic divides, under the watchword of humata, hukhta, hvarshta, or “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”.

Nazanin, Richard, and Gabriella deserve and will need all three if this latest development is to prove more than a mere political gesture, but we shouldn’t underestimate its significance. Today, we can finally say that Nazanin is not only ours, but that she is us.

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