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Security Brief: CENTCOM Week of May 3, 2021

Week of May 3, 2021 | Issue 32


Team: Marco Parks, Eleonore Thibaud; CENTCOM


Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliife[1]


Date: April 26, 2021

Location: Iran

Parties involved: Iran, United Kingdom, United States

The event: Last month, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian journalist, was released from house arrest after spending four years in an Iranian prison on accusations of plotting to overthrow the regime. On April 26, 2021, Iran sentenced Nazanin to another year of imprisonment on charges of propaganda against the Islamic Republic. Her lawyer stated that she was accused of participating in a protest in London twelve years ago and speaking to the BBC Persian service. A remote psychological evaluation found that Nazanin has been suffering from “serious and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”[2] Her sentencing comes as Iran holds fragile talks in Vienna about the reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with world powers.

The implications: Why is this event good/bad? What are the results of this event? This can include a prediction(s).

  • Given the context of the Vienna nuclear talks, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment will likely be used by Iran as a bargaining chip to improve its positioning and gain a more preferable resolution to the nuclear negotiations. Nazanin’s case does not carry enough weight to constitute a dramatic shift in Iran’s diplomatic power. Nevertheless, the case will fortify Tehran’s leverage in talks by allowing Iran to “pay” the UK and other Western members of the 2015 JCPOA with her freedom in return for increased sanctions relief or a provision preferable to Iranian interests in the deal. Western participants in the nuclear talks, namely the UK, will likely feel pressured by the public to bargain with Iran to grant Nazanin her freedom, even if it means making unreasonable concessions on the revamped nuclear deal. If Western states acquiesce to these pressures, the long-term implications could be dire, including a weakened nuclear accord that enables Iran to expedite its nuclear production or limits the sustainability of the deal’s nuclear restrictions.

  • Nazanin is also being used as leverage in the Iran and UK discussion over a £400m debt in tanks, which failed to be delivered to the Islamic Republic in the 1970s. Although governments have downplayed the issue, claiming that they remain “two separate entities,” Iran has, over the years, used the detention of dual citizens as bargaining chips in international matters.[3] Iran’s economy has been crushed by US sanctions and the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of medical care has deeply worsened the situation. Thus, the lifting of all foreign sanctions and this four-decades old payment are essential for the economy to recover. Statistics have shown that Iran witnessed a 12.5% economic growth in 2016 after signing the nuclear deal, and its oil production and exports were at their highest before drastically falling since 2018. Hence, the Republic is likely to benefit from a new nuclear deal but stresses that all sanctions must be lifted in order to secure the recovery of its economy. Nazanin plays a key role in the matter as Britain was a signing member of the JCPOA in 2015. Britain could act as the last push leading the US to lift all sanctions and thus meet all of Iran’s demands.

  • Nazanin could become part of a prisoner swap between Iran and the US, as it happened in 2016 and 2019. Since 1979, Iran has repeatedly arrested Americans and other dual-national citizens on either spy charges or anti-regime propaganda. The exchange prompted by Jason Rezaian in 2016 and Masoud Soleimani in 2019 appeared to be rare cases of cooperation between the two states. Although current discussions on the exchange of prisoners remain inconclusive, it is likely that this would be the best compromise for both countries. Iran could have access to frozen accounts and get its citizens back, whilst Nazanin would no longer be used as leverage in the Vienna talks.

[1] Nazanin and Richard Ratcliffe - New Year's Day 2011” by MrZeroPage licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Iran sentences aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe to extra year in jail, Deutsche Welle (DW), April 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/iran-sentences-aid-worker-zaghari-ratcliffe-to-extra-year-in-jail/a-57339969

[3] Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: UK and Iran in talks over debt but 'unlinked' to case, BBC, May 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-56969519

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