Nazanin Ratcliffe’s freedom is up for ransom

For those who don’t know who Nazanin Ratcliffe is, here’s a summary: Nazanin is a British-Iranian mother who was arrested on April 3ed at the airport in Tehran, with her 2 year-old daughter,  following a visit to her family in Iran. At first she was charged with spying but then the regime clamped down on any information regarding her case. After 150 days in jail, during which she had limited contact with her family and her lawyer, she was convicted to 6 years in jail in a closed-door court for “secret” charges. Obviously, no evidence regarding Nazanin’s “crimes” was shared with the world and she continues to maintain her innocence. But then again, Nazanin’s case only exemplifies the fact that in cases in which the regime is intent on arresting or executing someone, the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty” is traded for “guilty until proven innocent” mixed with severe restriction on a proper legal defense. Her daughter is living with Nazanin’s parents and is not allowed to leave Iran while her husband has remained in the UK out of fear that he too would be arrested. Nazanin’s physical and mental health is deteriorating and word has leaked out that she has become suicidal.

Nazanin is not alone: 6 other dual-nationals from the West (Canada, US and the UK) were arrested under similar circumstances. Dual-nationality is not recognized in Iran and the unfortunate dual-nationals who were arrested were stripped of their foreign passports, losing their rights to involve the help of foreign embassies in Tehran Furthermore, it’s important to remember that following the signing of the JCPoA, 4 dual nationals were freed from jail in what some claim was one of the biggest case of ransom since the US flew out $400 million to Iran just before the prisoners were freed – President Barack Obama claimed that the money had nothing to do with ransoming the prisoners and everything to with the initial implementations of the nuclear deal but no one really knows.

The arrests of dual and foreign nationals is not something that President Hassan Rouhani would really want in view of his repeated invitation for foreign investments in Iran but then again, that’s probably why these people are in jail: Rouhani’s opponents, hardliners within the regime including the IRGC which is responsible for all of the arrests of dual/foreign nationals, are probably using these arrests to weaken Rouhani to the world. These are the same forces which have actually increased the number of executions under Rouhani, knowing that he is powerless to block these travesties of justice. One thing is certain, the hardline elements in Tehran have no qualms of imprisoning or executing people in order to weaken Rouhani.

The issue of ransoming dual-nationals imprisoned in Iran has come again in regards to Nazanin. Word is spreading that Nazanin is being held as a bargaining chip for a debt of 500 million pounds which the UK owes to Iran. The UK foreign office has denied these allegation and maintains that it is doing all it can to help free Nazanin but there is no evidence that such efforts are a reality – the foreign office might be pressuring Tehran behind the scenes as part of its renewed diplomatic relations with Iran but any such efforts, if they exist, are hidden from public scrutiny.

Whether or not Nazanin is being held for ransom, or simply as added pressure on the UK or because Tehran really believes that Nazanin is guilty of some crime which justifies being sent to jail for six years is not clear. But the ransom alternative makes a lot of sense: Tehran needs money, as cash payments or through foreign investments. The UK, on the other hand also wants money by either selling its goods to the Iranian market or through investing in Iran. So, both sides stand to gain financially from good relations. The outstanding 500 million pound debt is bound to be an issue between Tehran and London which will have to be finalized at some point in the near future. Demanding that normalized diplomatic relations should carry a price tag, 500 million pounds, can be “sweetened” by freeing Nazanin. Just as Obama denied paying ransom for hostages, so will the UK government. But at the end of the day, if money exchanges hands and prisoners are freed, the definition of ransom fits the bill.

In the meantime, Nazanin remains in jail, separated from her family while her family in in Iran and in the UK helplessly look on as human rights organizations continue to pressure Tehran without success. Whether Nazanin really is a spy or not is irrelevant to the regime since she is a perfect bargaining chip to make money and a perfect pressure point to weaken Rouhani.


Lawyers and Journalists Become “Endangered Species” in Iran



Despite Rouhani’s “moderacy”, or perhaps because of it, things in Iran seeem to be going from bad to worse. Rouhani’s promises for changes in the state of human rights appealed to his voters but also ruffled up quite a few feathers among hardliners who want to maintain the status quo “gained” ander Ahmadinejad.

Human rights lawyers and journalists seem to be on the front line with poilitcal opposition activists and minorities – anyone whose presence reminds the hardliners by their presence that the criticism against the state of human rights in Iran is horrid.

Nasrin Sotoodeh is a human rights lawyer who was jailed, relleased and re-jailed following protest over the acid attacks against women in Iran. She spent 3 years in Evin prison and was awarded the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought. She was also under a ten-year ban from practicing, and although the ban was released, it is now re-instated.

Jason Rezaian is an American-Iranian journalist working for the Washington Post in Iran. He was arrested for charges that range from sedition to spying and has been in jail for over three months with limited access to his lawyer nor communication to his family. He was arrested with his wife who was subsequently released.

Of course, these two do not represent the thousands of people who are rotting in prisons in Iran for charges which would seem ludicrous anywhere else in the world. But they do represent the problem olying behind Rouhani’s promises: as the rates of hangings increase and as persecutions of religious/sexual minorities are on the rise, the inability of Rouhani to deal with these two high-profile cases exemplifies the stalemate in Iran – human “wrongs” in Iran are getting worse and Rouhani remains silent.


Other relevant posts:




Tehran Silences Opposition


The Right to Voice Opposition = Democracy

Silencing the voice of opposition sooner or later allows the government to place the priorities of its leaders before those of the people it governs and in the case of a democracy, before those of the people they were elected to represent.

The voice of opposition doesn’t always represent the majority of the people but without it, the majority might one day find its own voice silenced.

But what happens when a government is both democratic and dictatorial such as in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran?


Elections ≠ Democracy

Iran prides itself on being democratic based on the fact that its presidents are elected by the people. In fact, in the last elections, Hassan Rouhani voiced his opposition to the management of the previous governments and was elected by a clear majority. His election was ratified by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s non-democratic leadership, embodied in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who gave Rouhani its blessing.

Perhaps Khamenei was ready for change or perhaps the call for change was so loud that he and his cronies understood that stifling the voice of the majority might lead to an all-out revolt.

Unfortunately for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the opposition leaders in the previous 2009 elections, they were not as lucky nor as successful as Rouhani:  they are still under house arrest to date despite Rouhani’s promise to free them and their silence reminds all that Khamenei still holds the dictatorial reins on Tehran.


Opposition = House Arrest, Imprisonment, Exile and Death

After 3 years under house arrest, Moussavi’s health is worsening. Three weeks ago, he was taken to hospital but was returned home by security forces on the same day. His daughter voiced her protest on the opposition’s website Kaleme and he was reintroduced to hospital to receive medical care. To the chagrin of the security forces, pictures of Moussavi in hospital were leaked renewing the pressure to free a man whose only crime was to legally oppose his government.

But Moussavi is still definitely in the category of “the lucky ones”. Most political prisoners find their way to the infamous Evin prison and even if they are hospitalized, they are chained to their beds such as in the case of political prisoner Mashallah Haredi.

The riots in Evin prison last month were lead by political prisoners who decided that they wanted to be heard. They were brutally silenced by Iranian security forces  and are now under threat of being exiled. No comment yet from Rouhani.


“Rogue Forces” and Hardliners

The opposition to Rouhani’s government is growing daily. Hardliners are staging protests and are disseminating information such as the infamous “I am Rouhani” movie which portrayed him as a “pragmatic technocrat leaning towards the West”. These same hardliners are now demanding for Rouhani to resign.

Rouhani, who was elected on the freedom of opposition cannot help but bite the bullet: “I am proud that the government has created a situation allowing everyone to easily talk and criticize“. But insiders say that he is specially frustrated at the silence of the most important voice in Iran, that of Khamenei.

In the meantime, ex-president Mohammad Khatami has expressed his worries that “rogue” forces of plain clothes security officers who are disrupting meeting that include any criticism against Khamenei and the Islamic Revolution.

So paradoxically, the election of a democratic, moderate-minded leader is allowing for more voices of opposition to grow against him while any opposition to the hardliners remains silent.

Which is worse? And more importantly, when will Iran decide if it wants to remain a dictatorship or become a true democracy?

Ashton, the Regime IS the Message (part 2)


Khamenei Was Right

Back in February, Supreme Leader Khamenei stated that the US wants to change the regime in Iran. Although most Western diplomats would outwardly shake their heads in denial, in their hearts they would probably agree with Khamenei.

In our last post we pointed out that Tehran’s stance on Human Rights and on its Nuclear Program are similar symptoms to the real problem – the regime of Ayatollahs. In both cases, the regime is striving to avoid any external interference in an agenda that is deemed to be internal. The difference is that, at least for now, President Rouhani seems ready to talk about reaching a nuclear deal while any talk of human rights abuse is nearly non-existent.

Ashton and Zarif Learn the Hard Way

EU Chief Catherine Ashton probably believed that by seemingly making headway on the nuclear track, she could do the same on the human rights track as well. She was proven wrong not only by the rants of hardliners but by a diplomatic snub by none other than the smiling Foreign Minister Zarif himself who subsequently cancelled a dinner meeting with Ashton.

Whether Zarif knew about Ashton’s meeting beforehand or not is still in question but Zarif’s reaction symbolizes the large and sensitive political gulf between Iran and the West.

Zarif did not exit cleanly: following Ashton’s meeting, Zarif shot out a warning to the Austrian ambassador for abuse of diplomatic rights. Within a week, the Austrian response came back loud and clear in a meeting between Zarif and members of the Austrian parliament who grilled him on the human rights issue in Iran. Zarif objected on the politicization of the human rights issue in discussions with Iran but found himself admitting that “there was room for improvement” on the state of Human rights in Iran.

Sarah Shourd Learned the Harder Way

Unlike Ashton and Zarif who used diplomatic maneuvers, Sarah Shourd, an American was arrested in July 2009 with two fellow Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, while hiking in the Zagros Mountains on the border of Iraq and Iran. The three were charged with spying and thrown in jail. Sarah spent 410 days in solitary confinement until her release which was expedited up by her insistence of a growing tumor in her breast.

Once out, she campaigned successfully for the release of her friends who followed her to freedom after approx. 800 days in prison…the happy ending became happier as Shourd and Bauer married soon after his release.

Shourd, Bauer and Fattal might have been unlucky to be thrown in jail but getting out alive makes them extremely lucky.

Khamenei Remains the Key

Khamenei is Supreme Leader and as such, abhors any form of pressure, especially pressure from outside of Iran.

On the eve of the Iranian new year, Khamenei communicated the need for Iran to be self-reliant in the face of the West, emphasizing “economy, culture and knowledge” as the means to achieve self-reliance. Economy is key here since economic sanctions were and remain the best forms of pressuring the regime.

Khamenei himself acknowledged that in the past year, “The Year of Political and Economic Valor”, political valor was achieved but as to economic valor, “what should have been done and what was expected to be done was not done”. In any case, he named this year “The Year of Economy and Culture with National Determination and Jihadi Management” – whatever that means.

A few days later, he expanded on the need for internal freedom by emphasizing the lack of freedom shown to people who questioned the Holocaust: “#Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened. They treat their redlines in such manner. How can they expect us to neglect our faith’s redlines #freedom #holocaust“. Khamenei wants to raise Iran’s red lines to the level of the Holocaust in order that no one will criticize or pressure him again.