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Nazanin Zaghari is a dual British-Iranian citizen who has been detained for years because of allegations over plotting to topple the Iranian government. These claims are clearly fictitious, and it's widely believed she's being held hostage until the UK government repays a supposed Iranian debt from many decades ago.

Aside from a few strong words, the UK government has, in reality, done very little to nothing so far, and at present seems to be exploring options to pay off said debt to secure her release. The UK has a reasonably strong military presence however, and other countries have shown they can interfere when willing (the US famously assassinated Qasem Soleimani for instance.)

Why wouldn't the UK government conduct a military rescue mission to recapture Nazanin Zaghari and free her from Iran?

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    Please give links and proven facts, not “ it's widely believed” and “ These claims are clearly fictitious.” That will not be accepted on this site. Please provide proven facts and sources. – Ekadh Singh Mar 22 at 20:45
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    This question would be more interesting without the binary choice. Is there more the UK government could have done without resorting to force? – Jontia Mar 23 at 6:43
  • @Jontia that makes it a very broad question, you can always come up with things that could be done. As it's currently phrased, it's quite narrowly scoped to focus on the downsides of a rescue mission. – JJJ Mar 23 at 10:17
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    FYI: I'm an Iranian but I live in the US. I agree taking someone hostage regardless of his/her citizenship is something immoral. But, you should know that Iran is not Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria. Any military rescue mission is going to be failed even before it's being started. Why? Well, it seems there should be a power balance in Iran by different parties that have strong interests in Iran. For example, if there would be any successful military operation in Iran by UK or US, it would pave the way for further military encounters in Iran which is not in the best interests of Russia or China. – Alone Programmer Mar 23 at 13:36
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This question seems to assume that 1) Iran is a defenceless nation where nobody has guns. And 2) that the UK government considers this to be a top priority.

The comparisons with Qasem Soleimani is very weak. He was assassinated in an unmanned drone strike in Iraq, where the US military has full license to operate and had total air-superiority. There's a reason they had to wait for Soleimani to travel to Iraq to assassinate him, instead of killing him in Iran. You can't rescue a prisoner by drone.

So you need a special-ops force to fly into Iran, without being noticed, take control of a secure prison facility. Repel the Iranian counter-attack and then what? Fly a helicopter in, while under fire land, land and extract Zaghari-Radcliffe and fly out again (dodging bullets?)

It's a great movie, but it's not going to happen in real life. What would actually happen is that everybody is killed or captured, and the UK is humiliated.

Secondly, Zaghari-Radcliffe is just a random woman. It's harsh, but she's not worth that much to the British. She isn't worth either the cost in lives of those special ops sent to rescue her, nor the diplomatic cost of an act of war. Apparently, Soleimani was worth the diplomatic and financial cost of the mission (and because that was a drone strike, US lives were not immediately in danger)

So ultimately this is a cost/benefit analysis. The potential cost is very high. The potential benefit is quite small.

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    Also Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq, where the US military has full license to operate and had total air-superiority. There's a reason they had to wait for Soleimani to travel to Iraq to assassinate him, instead of killing him in Iran – divibisan Mar 22 at 20:47
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    Thanks, stolen word for word! :) – James K Mar 22 at 20:50
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    And she is not the only foreigner imprisoned under doubtful circumstances in Iran. – RedSonja Mar 23 at 8:31
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    @RedSonja given shes an Iranian citizen, shes not considered a foreigner... – Moo Mar 23 at 8:43
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It is extremely difficult as a practical matter to invade a country and rescue someone if the country isn't already in chaos due to a war or revolution in progress.

It would also considered an act of war to do so, that could escalate the situation out of control, and at a minimum might result in retaliatory action against Commonwealth citizens in Iran in the future, and otherwise result in serious harm to British interests.

The U.K. usually benefits from respect for sovereignty from other nations and an action like this would undermine an overall policy of respect for sovereignty that usually benefits the U.K.

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Maybe Operation Eagle Claw will refresh your memory?

While seductive in theory, for clear-cut cases of abuse, these kinds of rescue mission are mostly impractical against a country that is prepared for it.

  • The hostage has a good chance of getting killed. Or at least moved out.
  • The risk of failure in a country with a functioning military is high.
  • It can trigger a war.
  • Not the least, there is a risk that the country launching the rescue does it on false pretenses, as a casus belli, to justify starting a war, rather than for good reasons. So the international community has an interest in this not happening very much, if at all.
  • Each time you go to war with a country there is also a strong risk that, even if you win, you inherit that place as a country that you need to manage. That is essentially what happened to the US in Afghanistan.

These questions, when the prisoner/hostage is not at immediate risk of death, are much better handled via diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.

With all sympathy for Ms Zaghari, there is a real risk, when you travel to some countries like Iran or North Korea, that you end up a pawn of its government in a power struggle with your government.

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  1. A military operation like this does typically lead to fatalities. Even if we could tell that there will be only one fatality, and the fatality will be an Iranian, you are proposing to trade a life for a life. But we cannot tell that there will only be one fatality, and even if we could, we cannot tell if the fatality will be Iranian or British.

  2. A military operation like this can fail. The target might get extracted. The target might get killed. The target might remain jailed. The extraction forces might be captured. The worst case is if the hostage dies and Iran captures some of the attacking team to replace them. If this happens, it will have rather immediate severe negative consequences for any politicians involved in authorizing the attack.

  3. A military operation against a foreign nation is an act of war.

    3.1 Wars are ridiculously expensive.

    3.2 The prime minister cannot simply order an act of war on his own.

    3.3. After Iraq, starting Wars is even less popular than it used to be, and would risk some serious punishment in the next election.

  4. If the operation succeeds it sets a precedent that the UK approves of such operations, which massively weakens it's diplomatic weight if other countries decide to subsequently invade foreign countries to extract their nationals with military force.

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