Richard Ratcliffe has not eaten in 20 days. His body is beginning to shut down yet his voice is steady, his purpose resolute. On hunger strike outside the UK Foreign Office as his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, faces another year in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, Ratcliffe says he has one job: “To keep my wife alive.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian, was imprisoned by Tehran in 2016 on charges of espionage which she has vehemently denied. Ratcliffe hasn’t seen her since her dramatic arrest in April of that year at Tehran airport, where she was preparing to fly home from a family holiday with the couple’s then two-year-old daughter, Gabriella.
In the months that followed he was advised by the Foreign Office to tread carefully, and that quiet diplomacy would be the most effective way to secure her release. But after five and a half years of impasse, the softly-spoken accountant has had enough. The British government has failed to resolve a 40-year dispute over a £400m debt owed by the UK to Iran, which Ratcliffe believes is now critical in his wife’s release. Prime Minister Boris Johnson inflamed matters when he erroneously declared in 2017 that she had been “teaching people journalism” before her arrest — a statement deployed by Tehran as proof that she was engaged in anti-regime propaganda.
A City auditor, Ratcliffe never imagined he would be lobbying ministers or discovering the murky underworld of hostage brokering. “This is an accountant from north London whose life has been completely transformed,” says Tulip Siddiq, the couple’s local Labour MP. “He never thought he would lead a life of juggling media demands from dawn into the night, or dealing with government officials. An accountant is about as far removed as you can be from this world.”
Surrounded by bouquets of flowers, placards and stones painted with messages of support, Ratcliffe sits with a hot water bottle and starves himself in protest. “His quiet courage is a deafening rebuke to those who think it is acceptable to use innocent people as pawns in diplomatic power games,” says Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, who visited Tehran three years ago, while foreign secretary, to appeal in person for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was moved to house arrest in Tehran in March last year as the Covid pandemic swept through Iran. Her ankle tag was removed this spring when her sentence ended. But in April she was condemned to another year in jail after being convicted of a new offence. She has also been banned from leaving the country until 2023, and is awaiting a judicial decision on the timing of her potential transfer back to prison.
“I find I live it a day at a time,” says Ratcliffe. “At the beginning it felt like to get her home was just to battle and shout about the story. Over time it felt like I had to do more and more digging into what is going on. I still might not properly understand it.”
Government insiders say Tehran has been clear that Britain could facilitate Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release by settling an outstanding debt for 1,500 Chieftain tanks which the UK agreed to sell to Iran in the 1970s. The UK cancelled the deal after the Shah was toppled by the revolution, so only 185 vehicles were ever delivered. “Nazanin’s interrogators told her five or six months into her arrest that they were astonished that this had lasted so long,” insists Ratcliffe.
The UK had previously said it couldn’t pay back the debt because of EU sanctions against Iran’s defence ministry, a barrier now resolved by Brexit. US sanctions on Iran have also been cited as a blockage — though Hunt notes that President Barack Obama paid off $400m of debts to Tehran in order to release four US prisoners in 2016. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, has been clear the administration of Joe Biden would not oppose the debt being repaid, saying this is a “sovereign decision” for the UK. Government officials suggest there are legal barriers, but will not reveal what they are.
Ratcliffe and his allies in parliament believe Britain has now tied the release of his wife to the fate of US prisoners held by Tehran, as well as Iran’s return to negotiations over its nuclear programme. British officials deny this, and insist the matters are being dealt with entirely separately.
“The risk is that Nazanin has become an asset in pressuring Iran to return to its nuclear deal and liaising with the Americans to get Iran back to the table,” says Ratcliffe. “I think we have become a bargaining chip for the Brits.” A state department spokesperson said the US was working with its allies to seek their citizens’ release.
Ratcliffe prolonged his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office for a meeting on Thursday between Ali Bagheri, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, and Foreign Office minister James Cleverly. But having been debriefed on the talks, Ratcliffe is demoralised by the lack of progress, saying his family is “stuck in the same status quo”. Siddiq describes how her constituent “wilted” in the meeting. “It was really hard to watch as he sat opposite a minister delivering the same soundbites we’ve heard for years,” she laments.
The MP is also worried for Ratcliffe’s health. His vigil is due to end when the Iranian delegation attending the COP26 summit in Glasgow leaves the UK this weekend. His sister, a GP, is monitoring him.
Once back home, Ratcliffe says he and Gabriella will resume their routine of calling his wife at dinner time, or before leaving for school. “So she knows that we will be normal again,” he says. “That we are waiting for her.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Katrina Manson in Washington