Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has now spent close to six months in an Iranian jail. Since going public with the news of her arrest in May, her husband Richard Ratcliffe has taken every opportunity to tell Nazanin’s story, and has launched a petition calling for her release, which has now been signed by 800,000 people. At every turn — from the news that she’d been transferred to Evin Prison to the announcement that she would be tried along with other dual nationals to the most recent news of her sentence — he has made himself available to the media, met with and appealed to British and Iranian officials, and regularly blogged about Nazanin’s experience in prison based on her own accounts as told to her parents (and, when she is allowed, to Richard).
Nazanin is being held hostage in Iran, he says. But so is their two-year-old daughter, Gabriella, who was with her mother at the time of her arrest. Authorities took Gabriella’s passport away from her, and she remains with Nazanin’s parents in Iran.
So what is it like for Richard Ratcliffe, who remains in the UK, his life upturned, his family thousands of miles away?
IranWire talked to him about what it has been like to run the Free Nazanin campaign, the impact the state of British politics has had on the situation, and what it’s like to tell someone else’s story to the world.
What’s your day-to-day routine like?
I’ve been going into the office for a while now, managing things…doing things that are simple, that you can do without having to concentrate very well. I think it’s no bad thing to try to have a bit of a normal life.
There are days when there’s lots of media stuff happening. As the petition grew, I had to take a bit more care doing the updates. At the beginning, I wrote them quite quickly, but now there’s a day or two of thinking through what I’m trying to say. I’ve always tried to be reasonably transparent about what’s going on — I think that’s important, to challenge the incredible bullying.
For Nazanin’s family, they just feel that it's going to make things worse. In concrete terms they experience the worst end of it. So what that tends to mean is that I’ve got to be quite careful about what I say. It’s usually quite stressful working over what I want to say and things I think should be said.
How do you figure out what to say? Is this something you discuss with Nazanin’s family on the phone?
We wouldn’t discuss — it just makes them too stressed, and of course we’re probably being listened to. Apart from the messages where I’m saying “I miss my wife” or “Happy Eid,” I don’t think it would be possible for them to ever feel comfortable with what I’m writing. They accept that my heart is in the right place – although I’m probably making it worse. It’s probably not just a family thing actually; with the Foreign Office and many other advisors the narrative you often get is: don’t push too hard, you must allow them to save face.
There’s clearly a profound opportunism in what’s going on, in what the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian authorities are doing. But there is probably a general paranoia kicking around as well. In my limited experience of dealing with people who are paranoid, if they don’t understand your reactions, that feeds the paranoia. I’ve always tried to be predictable — to be public, and to be clear I’m going to be public until Nazanin and Gabriella are back. So they know where they stand. It’s their choice to end this, and they know what they’re going to get until such time as they end it.
What reminds you of Gabriella and Nazanin? What’s hardest in terms of missing your life together? What brings out bittersweet feelings?
I don’t often go into Gabriella’s room. When I do, I will remember moments. Nazanin has a lot of pictures of her on the wall of her first year. And it’s not the pictures so much; it’s more the memory of looking at the pictures with Gabriella and Nazanin. Gabriella used to always like to look at herself, or point to herself and say, “baby, baby!” That’s the memory that keeps coming back. With Nazanin, when does it emotionally connect? The most profound moments have been when I’ve spoken to her — not so much this last time, but the time before that. I’m in my little bubble of campaigning, and I try not to feel it. I just keep pushing through and think about how to present her story the best I can, to push the government, and thinking about what more we can do. On the phone, she was just so sad. It was the simple bit of how lonely and upset and deeply sad she was. This last time, there was a bit more anger in her voice — which was a good thing. She said that she didn’t ever want to wake up. The simplicity of that was powerful, the all-encompassing powerlessness and despair.
The family was allowed to give her a copy of War and Peace. It was my idea. The television adaptation was on here in the spring, and we watched it. I thought she could connect with her life before.
I’m always so struck during our Skype conversations at how much bigger Gabriella has got. There are times when we’ve got quite a good rapport over the phone and then times when — partly because she’s tired or whatever — she’s really not that fussed about talking to me. If I’m interesting enough, she’ll stay engaged. if not, she’ll say to one of the grandparents, “oh, you talk to him!”
Gabriella seems reasonably comfortable in her environment in a way she wasn’t at the beginning. Her Farsi seems pretty good to me; that’s certainly her dominant language now. Her English is not great; she seems to understand stuff — but she’ll respond in Farsi. She couldn’t speak Farsi at all when this started. It feels to me her English has regressed a bit, and her Farsi has come on in leaps and bounds. And certainly her mum is very proud of that. Gabriella’s grandparents will try to teach her a new phrase for their phone calls. Well, we can take that: one positive out of this whole thing.
Tell us about your approach to campaigning — and why you feel it’s important to speak out, especially when Nazanin’s family feel it might make the situation worse.
My basic approach to campaigning is to try to make our family problem everyone else’s problem — the British government’s problem, the Iranian government’s problem, the Revolutionary Guards’ problem. It’s a simple strategy of shame.
In truth, no one has really advocated an approach like mine. It comes from a gut-instinct kind of place. And it might be wrong. We’ve got very good media coverage. And I think that will be very important to Nazanin when she’s out — knowing that people cared. To know that her husband did something, that’s one thing. But it’s bigger than that. All those people involved. It’s such a profound experience of cruelty she’s going through. Completely arbitrary nasty unfairness. To have that sort of flipside, and to see that strangers can be kind, is important. Some people who follow the campaign will tweet every half an hour to bring her home. And that level of dedication and care from people who we didn’t know before we started — they have taken to her and are doing their best for her — will be really important to her.
What’s your view of the British government’s help to free Nazanin and Gabriella? Are authorities doing enough?
Last Monday [September 5], diplomatic relations [between Iran and the UK] were upgraded, Tuesday, when we got the sentence, I was livid. I was outraged. It felt like Nazanin had just been left there. And that there is a wider priority, which is to promote British trade interests in new emerging markets. We’ve had three months of Brexit distraction. And then in-fighting in the different parties. And they’d just forgotten her. That’s what it felt like. Half a million people had signed the petition within 10 days. It’s a pretty powerful popular mandate. I’m blogging to 800,000 people each week, and that’s a hell of a platform to leave me carrying on with. Partly it’s because the Foreign Office is secretive. Cautious. It doesn’t tell you anything that’s going on. Were this a domestic kidnapping case, you’d have a community liaison officer sitting with you regularly. You wouldn’t just be left, ranting at the media. It’s a really odd way of managing things. It’s six months away from our little baby. It should be easier than that to protect citizens. It really should be. I don’t think the Foreign Office has ever shared a strategy abut how they’re going to get her home.
It’s a slightly unprecedented time in Iran as well. There’s a whole new wave of different people being taken. Okay, Nazanin has charity links, Homa Hoodfar has charity links, but it’s gone into semi-business space now in terms of people who have been taken. It feels like it’s really not far off….what, civil war? Perhaps that’s exaggerating, but there are clear battle lines being drawn between different parts of the Iranian regime. And the foreigners are being used as bargaining chips as part of that.
Despite the occasional anger, overall you seem so calm.
Nazanin used to always say: talk more about your feelings! This has been one of the few moments in my life when it has been useful not to. I don’t even know, hand on heart, whether campaigning will make it easier for Nazanin to get out. I don’t know if being so uncompromising in campaigning as I’m trying to be will work. But I do think long term, it’s the only thing to do. And for Nazanin’s long-term welfare. It’s not about going around talking in nasty terms about the Revolutionary Guards or anyone else. My family’s future, and Gabriella’s future, should be tied up in being able to go to Iran in 20, 30, 50 years’ time. It’s not in my interest to have Iran be a pariah state. There’s a sense in which this is the refuge of a frightened security apparatus.
It’s becoming it’s own kind of self-serving business, with a level of arbitrary cruelty. As a business, a lot of what they’re doing makes sense: protecting interests and battling against charges of corruption and whatever else. But that’s not the future for Iran. That’s not what I want for my in-laws, for Gabriella. She’ll always be half Iranian. There’s a genuine price that we’re paying now, and that we will go on to pay. There’s all sorts of outrageous collateral damage that’s being done.
It’s not just the whispered threats. It’s also the acted-out threats in different ways. It’s quite breathtaking. What happens in Iran is very complicated; but it’s very simple as well. There’s a reason why people keep quiet.