Iranwire – At about 1.10am on Thursday, March 17, Iranian-British citizens Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri returned to Britain after years of captivity. Apart from IRGC-aligned media, which quickly re-hashed the fabricated cases against the two “spy” hostages, Iranian reformists and principalists wasted no time in presenting their own narratives around the event and its meaning.
It has by now been widely reported that the Islamic Republic released Nazanin after the British government agreed to unblock £400 million in assets, related to a consignment of 1,500 Chieftain tanks Iran had paid for – but never received – before the Islamic Revolution. While a core group of principalists boasted of “getting what Britain owes us” and victory in the supposed “war of wills”, some reformists lamented that if this had been the outcome during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, the same people would have cried foul.
Hardliners’ Glee at British “Surrender”
Hesamoddin Ashena, a former advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, even joked that principalists were citing the debt in dollars (about $530m) instead of British pounds, so that it would look more impressive.
Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, wrote expansively about the debt and accrued interest, and went on to report that an Iranian prisoner in Britain had been released as part of the deal. No other media outlet or official has yet made the same claim.
“The British, after they lost all hope that Zaghari would be released, suffered two heavy blows,” wrote Fars. “They lost their spy network and have to pay back not only the blocked funds of the Iranian people, but also the interest on it.”
The hardline newspaper Kayhan had a similar take take: “Now the British government has been defeated in its soft war against Iran, and has lost its spy network, and it has also been forced to pay its debt of $530 million to Iran after half a century.” While Nazanin was in the air and headed for home, hardline outlets republished old, sensationalist stories about her “50-man spy network” in Iran.
Government spokesman Ali Bahadori-Jahromi called the payment by Britain a victory in the “war of wills” and an act of “surrender” by Britain. Meanwhile Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour, an interrogator-reporter for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), declared: “Nazanin Zaghari served her six year sentence. Iran received what Britain owed, plus interest, and gave Britain a knockout.” Earlier, before the visit by a British delegation to Tehran was officially acknowledged, she had hinted: “After almost 50 years, we can hear the sound of Chieftain tanks.”
Interest: An Awkward Matter
Foreign Ministry officials and spokesmen still deny there was a connection between Nazanin’s release and the money. “Unlike the Westerners, who easily lie, our officials never lie to the people, because of their devotion to Islam and morality,” joked Sadegh Zibakalam, a writer and university professor, in response.
Instead of hostage-taking, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has claimed that “effective action by the government and related agencies” led to the £400m being released. In the latest official statement, this was said to include “both the principal and the interest accrued till the last day”.
However, British newspaper The Guardian points out that the British judiciary had already ruled on Iran’s claim for interest: “The precise sum, and the issue of interest, had already been settled in earlier court cases that saw the UK’s High Court rule that due to sanctions, no interest was payable to Iran on the debt.”
What the Reformists Had to Say
A number of reformists complained out that if Nazanin had been released under the Rouhani administration, hardliners would have been up in arms. Others had concerns about how it would reflect on the regime’s known pattern of hostage diplomacy.
The ex-MP Mahmoud Sadeghi tweeted: “The fact that is the result of work done by the previous administration is a very happy event. But the fact that it coincided with the release of two prisoners damages the credibility of the Iranian judicial system.”
In fact, in its last budget, Rouhani’s government had featured a line item for Nazanin’s ransom. Nazanin was in prison for “espionage” at the time and some reformists, including Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former President Mohammad Khatami’s chief of staff, asked principalist colleagues what would happen now if Zaghari told the BBC that she was not a spy.
Perhaps the newspaper Javan, affiliated with the IRGC, foresaw such an event. It had written: “This British spy was delivered to the British government yesterday after serving a six-year sentence. Now we must wait and see when she’ll tell lies against the Islamic Republic in the studios of the BBC and [Iran] International.
Jokes and Critiques on Social Media
A number of slyer takes about yesterday’s international event were posted online, including a fabricated quote from Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian that said: “Iran is ready to give a 10 percent discount for the release of other prisoners.”
Government media outlets had stated simply that Nazanin had been “handed over to the British government”. Some online observers demanded to know why that was, given that the Islamic Republic does not recognize dual nationality and regards her as an Iranian.
Still others recalled statements made in 2015 by Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards: “If there is a war between Iran and the US, we’ll take 1,000 American prisoners in the first week, and then they’ll pay a few billion dollars for the release of each one. Then, perhaps, we can solve our economic problems.”