Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother who was imprisoned in Iran on trumped up charges of “espionage” has been granted formal diplomatic protection by the British Government.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the move “represents formal recognition by the British Government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates it to a formal state-to-state issue”. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been reportedly denied medical treatment and legal support required by international law. According to Hunt, the decision to give Zaghari-Ratcliffe formal diplomatic protection was an “important diplomatic step which signals to Tehran that its behaviour is totally wrong”. (Source: BICOM)

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison for espionage but she has denied any wrongdoing. Her young daughter who is also a British citizen is also in Iran, living with relatives, as she is unable to leave the country because authorities have taken away her passport.

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin, stressed the move had raised her imprisonment from a consular issue into a dispute between two nations.

“Now it’s also the British Government’s case and all the injustices that happen to Nazanin are effectively injustices against the British Government,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He last spoke to his wife on Wednesday and she was “a bit more upbeat than she’d been before” given the talk about her being afforded diplomatic protection, a mechanism not believed to have been used for an individual by the UK for more than 100 years.

While Hunt admitted that diplomatic protection “is unlikely to be a magic wand that leads to an overnight result,” it did show the world that “the UK will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly”.

How does this relate to the Iran Deal?

The granting of diplomatic protection appears to be a change in stance by the British government, who have frankly been very weak with Iran over this issue.

When President Trump pulled out of the Iran Deal in 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May responded immediately by declaring the UK to be “firmly committed” to the deal. The news came as Iran threatened to increase Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence by an extra sixteen years.

It makes no sense for our government, on one hand, to demand that Iran free our citizen whilst they are handing over billions of pounds to the regime with the other hand in an attempt to appease them. The Iran Deal is a diplomatic measure to slow down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

We have seen Iran release American citizens since the US left the Iran deal and increased sanctions on the regime. The UK’s approach has been through discussion and diplomacy, and it has not worked until this point.


The granting of diplomatic protection is the first time in 100-years that the UK has granted this status to an individual. They didn’t take the decision lightly.

It was reported last month that a “large number” of prisoners were pardoned in Iran to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

Although state TV in Iran has not confirmed the exact figure, previous reports suggested up to 50,000 prisoners (of Iran’s 240,000 prisoners) would either be released or have their sentences reduced.

The ruling was passed by Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the final say on all major policies. This did not include the British citizens held by Iran.

What does diplomatic protection really mean?

The BBC reports:

This is an extremely rare diplomatic and legal move that signals the UK is no longer treating the case as a consular matter but a formal, legal dispute between Britain and Iran.

It means that the government believes Iran’s treatment of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe – her lack of access to due process and medical treatment – has failed to meet international standards.

As such, she should be given the formal protection of the British state.

So when British diplomats raise her case with Iranian counterparts in the future, they will no longer be representing just the interests of a UK citizen but also those of the British state.

This theoretically opens up the possibility of Britain taking some kind of international legal action against Iran.

This could range from requesting inquiries, demanding negotiations, even suing for compensation for an “internationally wrongful act”.

But Foreign Office sources indicated they were unlikely to go down this route. Few diplomats want the case snarled up in the International Court of Justice for many years.

Instead, the assertion of diplomatic protection will give the UK new ways of raising the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in international forums like the United Nations.

Most countries prefer to avoid getting involved in bilateral rows about complicated consular cases.

But now this has been elevated to a formal state-to-state dispute, Britain can look for allies on the international stage to put collective pressure on Tehran.

So what British diplomats hope is that this sends a clear signal to Iran that this issue is not going away, that the UK government is determined to keep pushing for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, and that it is prepared to escalate the dispute in the face of Tehran’s intransigence.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that diplomatic protection “is unlikely to be a magic wand that leads to an overnight result”.

But he said it showed the whole world that “Nazanin is innocent and the UK will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly”.

The question now will be how Iran responds.