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Spy for Us or Else: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

May 20, 2019
Shahed Alavi
5 min read
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was reunited with her daughter Gabriella during a short period in 2018, but was returned to prison shortly after
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was reunited with her daughter Gabriella during a short period in 2018, but was returned to prison shortly after

There is an edict based on Islamic jurisprudence that says spying on infidels is condoned, and can even result in the spy being rewarded for his or her efforts. Over the years, this edict has been reiterated by various religious officials to justify certain judicial decisions. 

“For the Muslims, spying against the infidel is allowed and, according the assertion of some, the spy gets a share of the spoils” [Persian link], a translation of the edict reads.

The edict, based on the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, or the “Sunna,” not only allows a Muslim to spy on the enemy, it encourages him to do so by promising him a share in the plunders of war even though he has not been directly engaged in the fight. Although this and other edicts of the Sunna are not part of the Koran — they are based on the words of the Prophet Mohammad — they can hold as much authority as the Koran, though they are also open to interpretation. In relatively recent times, this view has been repeated by, among others, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the one-time designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In his book The Jurisprudential Foundations of the Islamic Government, he stated that it was not only a choice that is “allowed,” but a necessity [Persian link]. And this “necessity” was later confirmed by Khomeini himself who said: “Spying to protect Islam and the Muslim people is a religious duty” [Persian link]. And, he added, if a particular act is a religious duty, then dereliction of this duty is subject to punishment.

For many years now, security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Republic have been responsible for identifying dereliction in this regard. Those found guilty of refusing to spy, including a number of Iranians with dual nationalities or Iranians who reside in foreign countries, have received heavy punishments.


Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British dual national, was arrested on April 3, 2016, as she was leaving Iran with her daughter after a visit with her family in Tehran. She was charged with activities to bring about a “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic but she was later tried on the charge of espionage. She was sentenced to five years in prison in September 2016.

In October 2017, her family reported that the Revolutionary Guards Corps had opened a new case against her and, if found guilty, she could serve a further 16 years in jail. According to Zaghari’s husband Richard Ratcliffe, the new charges against her involved her work as a training assistant for the BBC World Service Trust (now called BBC Media Action) in 2009 and her marriage to a British “spy.”

In a news conference on January 14, 2019, Richard Ratcliffe said that the Revolutionary Guards had pressured his wife to work with the Iranian intelligence services and spy on the UK, but only after she was arrested. According to him, on December 29, 2018, interrogators visited Zaghari in prison and told her that if she did not cooperate there would be consequences for her family in Iran. They also told her that they would arrange for her to be pardoned if she agreed to spy on the British Department for International Development.


Why Now?

But why did the Guards pressure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe at that particular juncture? I put this question to Richard Ratcliffe. “As I said earlier in my press conference, last December, more than two and half years after Nazanin was arrested, they made her this offer to put both her and her family under pressure,” he said. “But I do not think that they necessarily want her to spy for them. Their intention is more to confuse and frighten her so that she will believe spying is her only way to freedom.”

Richard Ratcliffe says December 2018 was not the first time security agents and the interrogators had proposed that Zaghari spy for them. “I know that during interrogations, after she was arrested but before the trial, they had asked her to spy for them. I have no idea on what or whom they had asked her to spy. I believe this happened in the early weeks of the interrogations. After a few weeks, when they could not find anything and decided that she had done nothing, they put pressure on her to spy in London. I guess they wanted her to spy on Iranians who live in London. She rejected this offer and eventually they decided to use her as a hostage for bargaining with the British government and sentenced her to five years in prison.” He has also said that he didn't get the sense that the point about spying on Iranians in London was a key part of the interrogations. He thought the interrogators mentioned this to Zaghari at the beginning of her period of incarceration, and around the time that they first promised her she could be released if she cooperated with them. Later, the Guards let her know that they were keeping her to apply pressure on the British government. 

Richard Ratcliffe says his wife was not arrested because she had refused to spy for the Revolutionary Guards, and the Guards had not asked her to spy before her arrest. “For this reason I gather that the suggestion for spying was made to Nazanin after she was arrested,” he says. “Of course, this is only one of the things that they have tried to pull off. In the case against Nazanin, it is clear that they are trying to show that she is guilty of something and now they are keeping her as a hostage for bargaining with the British government.”


Related Coverage:

UK Grants Diplomatic Protection To Free Nazanin, March 8, 2019

Narges Mohammadi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s Letter to the Prosecutor, March 5, 2019

No Release for Nazanin Until UK Pays Debt, July 23, 2018

New Court Date for Nazanin as UK Fails to Deliver on Promises, May 15, 2018

“Nazanin’s Treatment is Torture”, February 14, 2018

Iranian State TV’s Smear Campaign Against Nazanin, November 9, 2017

Stop Using Nazanin as a Bargaining Chip, October 18, 2017

British-Iranian Mother Could Spend 16 More Years in Prison, October 9, 2017

The Iranian Government Should be Ashamed of Taking My Wife and Daughter Hostage, September 17, 2016

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Sentenced to Five Years in Prison, September 9, 2016

Dual Nationals to go on Trial in Iran, July 11, 2016



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