IT’S the equivalent of a high-powered game of geopolitical chess in which all too often innocent individuals are played and sacrificed like pawns.

Most of us are probably unaware of the extent to which it exists and only when the plight of a high-profile victim appears in the news headlines does it catch our eye.

Such is the case of British Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who this week was sentenced by a revolutionary court to a further year in an Iranian prison on top of the five she has already spent incarcerated accused of spying.

Her latest additional sentence which also includes a one-year travel ban comes after the charity worker was found guilty of spreading propaganda against the Iranian regime after attending a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in London back in 2009.

It was in 2016, however, that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport after she visited Iran with her daughter, Gabriella, then almost two years old, to visit her parents.

READ MORE DAVID PRATT: The unholy mess of Jerusalem

She is not the first and perhaps will not be the last victim of a practice that has become known as “hostage diplomacy.” At its most basic, the rules of the game are comparatively simple even if the political machinations that ensue once a hostage is taken are often more sinister and complex.

As the rules stand first, of course, a hostage must be taken and in Iran’s case the likes of a charity worker like Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, or academic researchers and students or other ordinary civilians fit the bill perfectly.

Having selected the hostage, then comes the pretext which invariably comes in the guise of protecting national security or counter-terrorism.

It matters little that most of those detained are invariably innocent of the trumped-up charges levelled against them, having instead been targeted to be used as political bargaining chips to further the foreign policy interests of the Iranian regime.

Not that Iran is unique in global terms when it comes to hostage diplomacy. China, too, has something off a track record as does Turkey in holding foreigners on sometimes dubious grounds. Come to think of it the US is not exactly squeaky clean either in this regard, with some questionable practices in detaining certain individuals at Guantanamo.

HeraldScotland: Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with his daughter Gabriella during a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London. Photo: Ian WestRichard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with his daughter Gabriella during a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London. Photo: Ian West

But far and away it is both Iran and China that are the main perpetrators of such diplomatic malpractice. Indeed, Beijing’s detention of two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, since 2018 has so seriously soured relations with Ottawa that the normally conciliatory Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended up so forcefully condemning Beijing’s actions that Canada’s relationship with China was turned into a significant point of domestic political debate.

So impactful has China’s detention of Mr Kovrig and Spavor been that in February Mr Trudeau’s government launched an initiative to organise international opposition to “hostage diplomacy.” Since then, the consequent declaration against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations has already been signed by 58 nations and the European Union.

But still the practice goes on with Iran the most persistent culprit. There is, of course, historic precedence here and many will remember those years between 1979-81 and what became known as the ‘Iran hostage Crisis’ when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage after a group of militant Iranian college students took over the US embassy in Tehran. Then there was that period throughout the 1980s, when dozens of Westerners were taken hostage by Tehran’s proxy the Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah and exploited for Iran’s political gain.

Today, though, in the case of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe no one doubts that the underlying cause of her incarceration is, in fact, an unpaid international debt by the UK which goes back to an arms deal Britain signed with the Shah of Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In other words, the UK government owes Iran £400 million and until Tehran sees the debt settled then it will continue to play hardball using as political collateral an innocent woman who has already suffered appallingly and often spent months in solitary confinement.

According to Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard, Iranian officials have already told his wife that her detention would end when the UK government offered up the £400 million.

So why not settle a debt that only last month even the UK Defence secretary Ben Wallace admitted was “absolutely right” and that the money must be repaid?

This, though, is where the rules of the hostage diplomacy game get more labyrinthine and trickier. With Western sanctions currently imposed on Iran, and while it remains something of a pariah state, Washington would take a dim view were Britain to sidestep financial transfer prohibitions introduced by the Trump administration and hand over the cash right now.

This, too, before the thorny issue of the ongoing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations underway in Vienna as the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (the P5+1) try to resuscitate the nuclear deal with the Tehran regime.

In all of this, diplomatic leverage matters enormously and Ms Zaghhari-Ratcliffe is sadly inextricably caught in that leverage process.

With presidential elections in Iran also bearing down now is not the time for the Ayatollahs to show weakness so more posturing and strong arms tactics are only to be expected. All of which does not bode well for Ms Zaghhari-Ratcliffe, and the 14 other dual nationals and one foreigner currently held hostage in Iran.

So, what then must the UK, EU, US do in response? Perhaps the most obvious thing is that as the negotiations on the nuclear deal recommence, it must be made clear that any lifting of sanctions must require a shift on Tehran’s position and the release of hostages.

As Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of The Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), pointed out recently, the Biden administration and EU officials “must vigorously pursue both bilateral and multilateral tracks to gain the release of those dual-nationals and foreigners still held in Iran.”

Any failure to do this and effectively address Iran’s hostage-taking only green-lights the practice and leaves other dual nationals at risk of being taken and used as political pawns.

READ MORE DAVID PRATT: Dark days ahead for Afghanistan

Back during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, the Western media once described the stand-off as an “entanglement” of “vengeance and mutual incomprehension.”

For the sake of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and others like her, it’s time to disentangle that vengeance and mutual incomprehension and return these hostages’ their freedom.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald