The British Foreign Office has said it is not legally obligated to provide assistance to a British-Iranian woman held in Iran since 2016, a position that raises questions about how much protection a Western power is willing to offer its citizens at risk, and what Britain’s international role should be after its exit from the European Union.
The ministry’s position was articulated in a letter sent in October to the lawyers of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian citizen held in Iran since 2016, and whose treatment there may have amounted to torture, according to United Nations experts.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 42, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was traveling home to Britain after visiting her family. She was later sentenced to five years in prison after the Iranian authorities accused her of plotting to overthrow Iran’s government. She and her family deny the charges.
Her case has pitted Britain against Iran in a diplomatic dispute involving accusations that Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in retaliation for a decades-old debt that Britain owes to Iran in an arms deal.
The British authorities provided diplomatic protection to Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe last year. Yet they have not sent a consular officer to visit her, either when she was detained at the notorious Evin prison, or since March, when she was released and placed under house detention.
Nations can provide two kinds of international protection for citizens abroad: The lower form, which Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers are seeking, is consular assistance, which provides for aid such as legal advice, negotiation of special treatment or visits.
Under the higher form, diplomatic protection, Britain considers her case a legal matter with Iran, elevating it to a formal state-to-state issue.
In October, the Foreign Office told Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers it would not automatically extend consular assistance, saying that Britain did not “have a legal duty of care to British nationals overseas,” according to the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times.
Sarah Broughton, the head of consular assistance at the Foreign Office, wrote in the letter that while Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s safe return to Britain remained a priority, the diplomatic protection she enjoyed did not confer any specific legal obligation.
The letter, excerpts of which were made public by the Times of London on Monday, has outraged Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers and family, rights groups and a former top British official. And the issue is rising at a moment when Britain is trying to assert its new role on the global stage as a power outside of the European Union.
The former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who granted Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection in March 2019, calling it an “extremely unusual” step at the time, said that through the Foreign Ministry’s words, Britain was “beginning to look weak.”
“We must show the world that if you imprison a British citizen on trumped-up charges you will pay a very heavy price, because Britain is a major player on the world stage and intends to remain one,” Mr. Hunt wrote in The Times of London.
“Allowing ourselves to be pushed around like this at the moment of post-Brexit renewal sends the opposite signal,” he added.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been staying at her parents’ house in Tehran since she was granted temporary release in March because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the Evin prison, although she has to wear an ankle tag and cannot leave the vicinity. Her furlough was extended indefinitely in May, raising hopes that she could be given clemency and soon return to Britain.
But in September she was told by the Iranian authorities that she was facing new charges of “spreading propaganda against the regime.” Her trial was postponed twice, in September and November.
Richard Ratcliffe, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that her situation has been stable since November. “She was finally allowed to see a doctor weeks before Christmas, something that had been denied for eight months,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “The fact that Iranian authorities are not blocking it is at least a positive side.”
The letter from the Foreign Office came after Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers formally requested that the British authorities set out their obligations in protecting Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The response was staggering, Mr. Ratcliffe said.
“It makes one feel that British citizens are not citizens, just subjects,” he said. “It’s inherently unfair.”
Iran has said it does not recognize Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British nationality.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that while there was no duty in international or domestic law to provide consular assistance to nationals abroad, consular staff tried to provide appropriate assistance to those who requested help, and “doing more for those who need more help.”
“The legal context can make it more difficult to help dual nationals in certain countries,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “In Iran as elsewhere the concept of dual nationality isn’t recognized, and the help we can provide depends on what the host state will permit.”
John Dugard, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on diplomatic protection, said that Iran’s treatment of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe did not meet international standards, and that her British citizenship should not be in question.
“She’s lived in the Britain for many years, she is married to a British husband, she has a British passport,” Mr. Dugard said. “She’s a British national.”
Mr. Dugard said that in denying her consular assistance, British officials “seem to have deferred to the Iranian argument that Nazanin is not a British citizen.”
Providing consular assistance is essential for a case like Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s, Mr. Dugard said, because it would send a strong indication that the British government wants to protect its citizens. “It also insists on her getting a fair trial, if she was to receive another trial,” he added.
Iran has used foreign citizens or dual nationals as bargaining chips to obtain the release of Iranian prisoners or other concessions. More than a half-dozen foreign and dual nationals are now being held in Iranian prisons.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe may have been caught in a broader dispute over a payment of 400 million pounds, or about $540 million, that Britain owes to Iran after it refused to deliver an order of tanks following the 1979 revolution. The British Defense Ministry has refused to pay, and Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been told that she was being held in retaliation, according to her lawyers.
Following a meeting in September with lawyers of the British Foreign Ministry, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyer asked in a letter to the ministry whether it considered her case to be consular, a torture case or a hostage one. In its response in October, in which it said there was no legal right to consular assistance, the ministry refused to consider her a hostage case, and said it could not investigate allegations of mistreatment or torture in Iran.