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Hostages of fortune: Those paying the real price for Partygate

As Tory infighting and political psychodramas dominate British media, the true cost of this government’s descent into booze-fuelled farce is being paid by British citizens, at home and abroad.

Aryan Ashoori, the son of Anoosheh Ashoori, Richard Ratcliffe, Sherry Izadi and Elika Ashoori, the wife and daughter of Anoosheh Ashoori during a protest outside Downing Street in August. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images.

If you believe the British press, this is a critical week for Boris Johnson. But raise your eyes from the lurid headlines about the Bacchanalian dissolution of Downing Street and you will find the reverberations of the #Partygate scandal reach all the way to a jail cell in Tehran.

In Evin prison, 67-year-old British citizen Anoosheh Ashoori has started a hunger strike in a desperate attempt to put pressure on Iran to release him – just one of the many jobs Boris Johnson’s government is neglecting as it seeks to save its flawed leader at the expense of so many others.

Ashoori, who has been detained since 2017 on spurious spying charges that he denies, is just one of several British citizens with dual Iranian nationality being held by Tehran, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose husband Richard staged his own hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in November to force Johnson’s government to pay a decades-old £400 million debt that Iran has explicitly linked to the fate of the prisoners. 

While no one seeks to minimize Iran’s responsibility for seizing people as “diplomatic hostages”, Britain has acknowledged it owes the debt but has so far failed to organise payment. All this is playing out against the backdrop of talks to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, taking place now in Vienna.

Ashoori’s wife, Sherry Izadi, said her husband decided to go on hunger strike in solidarity with 77-year-old former US diplomat Barry Rosen, who was held hostage by Iran from 1979-1981 and who staged a five-day hunger strike outside the Vienna talks to put pressure on the negotiators to consider the fate of around two dozen “diplomatic hostages”, like Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

As her husband starves himself, Izadi is disheartened by the unedifying spectacle of a government paralysed by the kind of behaviour that would be frowned upon in a frat house and totally obsessed with the fate of another man, whose downfall is entirely of his own making. 

“They are so busy with their own internal affairs, so busy with their Partygate and every other mess they’ve made that it would be a miracle if they had time for this,” she said.

Rosen ended his hunger strike on Sunday evening, citing health reasons. He tweeted: “This isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. Please support us and keep hope alive. #FreeTheHostages.” Other journalists, former hostages and activists have also joined the strike.

Izadi said her husband, who has been subjected to solitary confinement, coercive and abusive interrogations, forced confession, and threats to his and his family’s safety, was in good spirits before he started his strike on Sunday. 

“He was very positive, actually, very determined. He had a strong spirit and he said he was really determined to do this and I think he was very happy to be able to contribute something,” she said, acknowledging, however, that she was concerned about his health and the Iranian regime’s reaction. 

Despite having a phone call with Foreign Minister Liz Truss before Christmas and several other interactions with Foreign Office staff, Sherry said they had little new information.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people but it doesn’t mean we’ve learned anything and we’re no wiser now than we were three months ago, except that I actually get the sense that things are regressing. I haven’t seen any sign of progress… It’s extreme limbo.”

While Izadi’s family endures this paralysis, the focus on fridges, finger food, and suitcases of wine has sucked so much oxygen out of the air that even the prospect of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine got second billing in most British media on Monday – relegated by a week of “reckoning” for Johnson and the prospect of former adviser Dominic Cummings testifying to top civil servant Sue Gray as she prepares her report on #Partygate. 

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the UK has begun to withdraw some staff from its embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. The US has also ordered the relatives of its embassy staff to leave the country, saying a Russian invasion could come “at any time”. On Sunday, the Foreign Office accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of planning to install a pro-Moscow figure to lead Ukraine’s government.

Truss is at least back in Europe now as the continent faces its most serious crisis since the Cold War, home at last from her trip to Australia where, the Guardian reported, former Australian prime minister Paul Keating accused her of making “demented” comments about Chinese military aggression. In an op-ed for a blog, Keating also said Britain “suffers delusions of grandeur and relevance deprivation” .

It would seem this view is shared by some in Europe where Johnson has reportedly been marginalised because no EU leader wants to talk to someone they no longer trust. 

But while Truss is home, Ashoori’s case may still have to wait as she is heading to Brussels on Monday for more talks on the Northern Irish Protocol and Brexit – the other oxygen-sucking legacy of recent Tory factionalism. 

Will Truss even be able to focus on the Brexit she once didn’t believe in? After all, she is one of those tipped to succeed Johnson, if and when he goes. If, that is, she can dodge the slings and arrows fired off by her rivals, said to include Chancellor Rishi Sunak. 

And what does all this mean for Sunak’s ability to focus on a cost of living crisis rooted in rocketing energy prices, tax hikes and spiralling inflation? And what of the levelling up agenda, once so vaunted by the Tories but now seeming increasingly empty as we are all levelled down to a kind of politics that makes everyone poorer, and not just financially? Who even has time with all this to look into the mounting costs of Brexit as red tape tightens around the throats of British businesses?

But while the Tories fiddle and everything burns, Rosen’s hunger strike did seem to yield some results; US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley told Reuters on Sunday that the US was unlikely to strike a deal to save the nuclear accord unless Tehran releases four US citizens being “held hostage”. Malley was speaking in a joint interview with Rosen on the sidelines of the indirect talks between Iran and the US.

For Sherry Izadi, the wait continues and the outcome, for now, seems to depend on just how strong her husband can be. She’s scared the Iranians will move him or hide him away, but she knows what to do if he misses a phone call. They’ve worked out their contingency plans together because no one in Johnson’s government seems prepared to do it with them, or for them. 

Anoosheh Ashoori’s bravery stands in stark contrast to a prevailing political culture where “nobody told me” is deemed a sufficient excuse for wrongdoing. 

“He said to me yesterday, ‘when I did my first hunger strike, I just wanted to die so as not to put any of you guys in danger. But this time, I’m going on hunger strike for a goal, for something I believe in, to be free’,” Izadi said.

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