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The Case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is No Laughing Matter

I have been following the devastating case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe closely since she was first arrested. But there was a development earlier this month that left me scratching my head. Amnesty International, together with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, were calling on the public to share their favourite jokes, leading up to a comedy event held in London on April 3.

Most of you will remember the plight of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the charity worker who was on holiday in Iran to visit her family for Nowruz (Iranian New Year) when, on April 3 2016, she was wrongly accused of spying by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and sentenced to five years imprisonment.

I have spoken to many of my English friends and am assured that the English pride themselves on their sense of humour. I have been introduced, more than once, to the peculiar English saying that “laughter is the best medicine.”

We have no corresponding saying in Russian. We believe that medicine is the best medicine. When we see a fellow citizen locked up by a hostile regime, our instinct is to call in the diplomats, the negotiators. It would not occur to us to send in the clowns.

But perhaps that explains the decision by the British Government to have Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson comment on the matter. During a debate on November 6 2017, Johnson informed the British House of Commons that Zaghari-Ratliffe was in Iran training journalists – a complete misunderstanding of the facts of this sensitive case which was shorty after put to her in court proceedings in Tehran and which might yet cost her an even greater sentence.

Thus far the only response from Johnson has been to offer a grudging apology that his words could have been ‘misinterpreted’ and his ‘raising the issue’ during a visit to Tehran on December 9 2017. Whatever the manner in which he ‘raised the issue,’ it clearly had no effect as Zaghari- Ratcliffe remains imprisoned and there has been no sign of any change to her status.

The United Nations have called for Iran to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe on no fewer than three occasions, commenting on October 20 2017 “These are flagrant violations of Iran’s obligations under international law.” And yet this has had no impact.

If the Iranian regime is not swayed by the repeated condemnation of the United Nations, it is unlikely to change its position because British people are telling jokes on a social media platform. It is unlikely to pay much attention to a stand-up comedy show in London. What is needed is serious and forceful diplomacy and negotiation from the British government on behalf of one of its citizens. Unfortunately for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as long as the most senior diplomat Britain has to offer is Boris Johnson, the chances of such serious and forceful negotiations seem slim.