Amid the climactic headlines and heated op-eds decrying Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal last week, something intangible was lost between the lines. Despite talk of the wider implications for Anglo-American relations and future stability in the Middle East, a deeply personal tragedy was drowned out by the loud grunts of American isolationism. This week, her name hit the headlines again, renewing calls for her immediate release.
It’s been over two years since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen, was imprisoned on “non-specific” charges in Iran and separated from her then two-year-old daughter at Tehran airport. Eight months ago, I interviewed her husband Richard Ratcliffe at a poetry reading vigil outside the Iranian embassy in west London. As he scattered the tarmac with remembrance candles he spoke of “arbitrary politics”, heartbreak and loss – but we also talked of hope. This week, days after Trump’s public rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement, hope has been usurped by ambiguity once again. Nazanin has been told she could appear in court again, facing new charges for an undisclosed crime. When it comes to getting his wife and daughter home, there are no obvious answers – only confusion, frustration and pain.
“Things changed last week,” Richard tells me as we discuss Trump’s latest move. “But what does that mean? I don’t quite know. What does it mean for Nazanin? And what does it mean for all the other prisoners?” Over the last month, a string of arrests involving British dual nationals or Iranians linked with British institutions in Iran has sparked concern. In April, British-Iranian academic Abbas Edalat – a professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College London – was arrested and detained by authorities in Tehran. Two more swiftly followed. This month, it was reported that London-based British Council employee Aras Amiri was arrested on a visit home to see her ailing grandmother; and Mahan Abedin, a British-Iranian security analyst, was taken into custody.
Richard tell me that his wife feels very low – and has said that she doubts she’ll ever see him again
“For me, what has been the most shocking thing in the last couple of months is that three more people have been taken,” Richard says. “I’ve not seen much outcry about that and I would’ve expected to.” In an interview with Buzzfeed news, Nazanin’s local MP Tulip Siddiq argued that the UK’s renewed negotiations with Iran in the wake of Trump’s nuclear deal withdrawal presented a unique opportunity for the government to press for the British-Iranian mother’s release. She also expressed disappointment at Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s refusal to answer her questioning in Parliament last week over the link between Nazanin’s continued imprisonment and a four-decade-old UK debt owed to Iran. "We have a number of very tough consular cases with Iran – alas, the number is growing – and they do not necessarily benefit from day-to-day discussions, as she knows,” Johnson replied.
“I was quite frustrated,” Richard says of Johnson’s comments in Westminster. He tells me his job is to stop Nazanin’s imprisonment becoming normalised – and to fight against the very real threat of compassion fatigue. “Part of my job is to be annoying to both governments,” he explains, “to say, listen, I will be a thorn in your side until you solve this.” He likens the fight to free his wife to a steep staircase. With every tentative move he’s acutely aware of what’s at stake; that with every step upwards, there’s a risk that multiple steps might be lost. Donald Trump’s U-turn was a definite stumble backwards for Nazanin’s family in Tehran, Richard tells me. “They were so hopeful when the agreement was signed – and hopeful that they could have a normal life. Suddenly that feels further away,” he says. “We hoped the nuclear process would lead to a happier place.”
Last week, the head of the Ministry of Justice in Tehran reportedly confirmed that a second case had been opened against Nazanin. Awaiting clarification as to what this might mean for her existing five-year jail sentence, Richard tell me that his wife feels very low – and has said that she doubts she’ll ever see him again. “Back at Christmas she had great faith in my promises that it would soon be over,” he says. “There’s not much that anyone can promise her now. She can look at the news and just be terrified.”
When we last spoke in February, Richard told me he was concerned for Nazanin’s mental health. That concern is still palpable. Nazanin is now on some strong medication, he informs me – drugs to help her sleep, pills to ease her panic attacks. “I’ve got a list and they’re quite scary, some of them,” he says, underlining that these prescriptions are symptomatic of a woman struggling. There’s only one protest prisoners can carry out in prison, Richard tells me – although Nazanin has promised to hold fire until their daughter, Gabriella, celebrates her fourth birthday in June. “What difference would a hunger strike make?” he asks rhetorically. “I think we’ll have to find out. It’s a cry for help – and help might not come.”
As time moves on, Gabriella gets bigger. She is becoming more aware of what’s happening around her. “She’s not at all the chubby baby that travelled out,” he says quietly – “she’s a little girl.” Richard tries not to dwell on the distance between them. It is futile to linger on the things he can’t control. Instead, the Free Nazanin Campaign now calls on the foreign secretary to “clarify that the UK’s top priority and accountability is not business interests, but ordinary people” – ordinary people like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Abbas Edalat; Aras Amiri and Mahan Abedin.
In the absence of obvious answers, all Richard can do is keep climbing. “Now the horizons have to stretch again,” he says. “I think we need to take a step up the staircase.” His pause could tell a thousand stories – “We’ll see where we go.”