The British Foreign Office has updated its travel advice on Iran, warning its citizens, especially those with dual Iranian nationality, of a risk of being arbitrarily detained.
The British government relaxed its advice against all but essential travel to Iran in July 2015 after the landmark nuclear agreement. But a stalemate over the fate of at least two British-Iranians currently detained in Tehran appears to have led the FCO to amend its instructions, although it has not raised concerns to the same level as before the nuclear deal.
“British nationals – including dual British/Iranian nationals – face greater risks than nationals of many other countries,” reads the new advice, which was updated on Friday. “The security forces may be suspicious of people with British connections. The risks are likely to be higher for independent travellers or students than for people travelling as part of an organised tour or business people invited by the Iranian authorities or companies.”
The warning will be bad news for Iran as it struggles to strengthen economic ties with the UK and attract more foreign tourists. The ongoing detentions of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman held since April, and 76-year-oldbusinessman Kamal Foroughi, a dual national in prison since May 2011, have undermined efforts by London and Tehran to improve relations.
Although Philip Hammond, then foreign secretary, reopened the British embassy in Tehran last year after a four-year hiatus, both sides have not yet upgraded ties to an ambassadorial level.
Iranian hardliners harbour deep suspicions of Britain, often invoking historical events, such as the 1953 MI6-engineered coup against Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister, to express doubts about British intentions today. Another factor is the operation of the BBC’s Persian service in London, which is loathed by the Iranian establishment but watched by millions of Iranians via illegal satellite dishes.
It is not clear why Iranian authorities are holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. A string of arrests involving dual nationals – including others from the US, Canada and France – has cast a shadow over Iran’s readiness to engage with the outside world since the nuclear deal.
Those arrests were mainly carried out by the powerful Revolutionary Guards, which act independently of president Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Some believe that the conservative-dominated Guards are seeking to undermine the international efforts of the moderate Rouhani.
Others say the arrests are part of Iranian attempts to make deals with the countries where the dual nationals have come from. This theory has been reinforced by January’s prisoner swap between Iran and the US, in which a group of Iranian-Americans held in the country were released, notably the Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, told the Guardian that there were indications that Iran, or at least the Revolutionary Guards, were considering a prisoner swap with the UK. It is not clear how many Iranian nationals are held in the UK for crimes such as violating sanctions regulations.
“The [recent family] meeting was held in the presence of Nazanin’s senior interrogator,” Ratcliffe said. “There was a renewed message for me. The message was … that I should do whatever I can to convince the British government to agree to a transfer. If they accept that, then Nazanin’s case will not stay in court long and will be finished soon.”
Foroughi’s son, Kamran, said there were “rumours that Iran wants a deal for its dual-citizen prisoners, including my 76-year-old dad”.
The FCO’s new advice reiterates that Iran does not recognise dual nationality, thus depriving such citizens of consular access while in custody. It also says that subsequent judicial process in Iran “falls below international standards”.
“There’s a risk that British nationals and British/Iranian dual nationals could be arbitrarily detained in Iran,” the advice reads. “Any behaviour that doesn’t have an obvious explanation can put you at risk, no matter how innocent you believe it to be. This may include travel off the beaten track, being present near crowds or sensitive sites, having contact with Iranians who are of interest to the authorities, taking photographs (except in major tourist sites), or behaviour that could be perceived as contrary to official Iranian interpretations of Islam.”
Last week, as Iran and the west marked one year since the nuclear agreement, the UK’s new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said the occasion “reminds us of the historic diplomatic breakthrough in Vienna that has made the world a safer place and is bringing real benefits to the people of Iran”.