LONDON — A British-Iranian woman held in a Tehran prison for years and her British husband began a joint hunger strike this week to demand her unconditional release, even as the relationship between the two nations has grown increasingly strained.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, began their campaign on Saturday, and Mr. Ratcliffe set up a small campsite on the sidewalk outside the Iranian Embassy in central London. He remained there on Wednesday, despite embassy staff members erecting metal barricades between his tent and the front door, and intermittently sanding the railings behind him.
“Being here is meant to be a very visible presence to say, ‘This is unacceptable, you are holding an innocent person,’ ” he said in an interview on Tuesday evening. “They have effectively kidnapped my wife.”
He sat in a folding chair on the sidewalk in front of the embassy in a yellow waterproof jacket, slowly sipping bottled water as rain streamed from his cap onto his jeans, already soaked from a sudden downpour. He said he hadn’t eaten in four days.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a program director at the Thompson Reuters Foundation, was detained in a Tehran airport in 2016 as she tried to return home to Britain after visiting family with the couple’s daughter, Gabriella.
She was accused of plotting to overthrow Iran’s government and ultimately sentenced to five years in prison. Her family and the foundation, a charity that is independent of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News, have vigorously denied the charges.
Despite British attempts to intervene, and the United Nations urging her release, she has remained behind bars. Her cause was not helped by Boris Johnson, then the British foreign secretary and now a leading candidate to be Britain’s next prime minister, when he said erroneously in Parliament in November 2017 that Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran “simply teaching people journalism.” That was used in a subsequent court hearing as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime.”
This is Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s third hunger strike since she was detained, but it is the first time her husband has joined her in the action, timed to their daughter’s fifth birthday.
Gabriella’s British passport was taken when her mother was detained, and she has remained with family in Iran pending her mother’s release.
“We have tried to campaign nicely, we have tried to campaign in lots of ways,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “And they have forced her to now go on three hunger strikes, and I’ll be damned if I am going to let her do this alone anymore.”
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released for three days in 2018. At Mr. Ratcliffe’s campsite, a framed photo of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Gabriella and a small sign that read “Hungry for Justice” leaned against the metal fencing behind him.
“I am sitting here to make the point that we need to sort this out,” he said.
The Iranian embassy has not agreed to meet with Mr. Ratcliffe to discuss his wife’s case in the nearly three years since she was detained, despite persistent requests.
“They have not even been willing to open the door to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, and what has been going on,” he said. “It’s shameful.”
But he said he hopes the protest at the embassy will change that.
“You cannot want to look at us, you can pretend to look away, but it’s a lot quicker to start trying to solve this problem,” he said.
Representatives from Amnesty International and other supporters have joined Mr. Ratcliffe in his campaign outside the embassy. Some shared images on social media that they said showed intimidation tactics by embassy staff members.
The Iranian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment about Mr. Ratcliffe’s campaign.
But this week, Hamid Baeidinejad, the Iranian ambassador to Britain, posted on Twitter: “Entrance and the pavement are the essential parts of the Iran Embassy building and needs to be cleared of persons and media to ensure security and peace of mind for diplomats entering the Embassy.”
The ambassador later posted in Farsi that “traffic from the main door is almost impossible” because of the protest and it “undermines the security” the embassy.
On Tuesday, embassy employees could be seen moving freely in and out of the entrance.
Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, met with Mr. Ratcliffe on Saturday when his hunger strike began to offer his support. He posted a message on Twitter to Iran, demanding the country do the right thing and release Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison.
Mr. Hunt has been supportive of the family’s calls for Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, and Mr. Ratcliffe said Mr. Hunt had remained personally committed to the case.
In March, Mr. Hunt said that despite his office’s best efforts to secure her release, Iranian authorities had not been responsive to repeated requests. He took the “extremely unusual” step, as he put it, of giving Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection, which elevated her case to a formal state-to-state issue. Iran quickly denied that she was entitled to the status and said it did not consider her case a diplomatic issue.
In recent weeks, the relationship between Iran and Britain has become increasingly strained as Iran threatened to end compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and Britain expressing a willingness to impose sanctions if the deal is violated.
Despite the tensions, Mr. Ratcliffe said he believed his wife’s case should be addressed immediately and said Iran’s recent release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese permanent resident of the United States who was jailed for four years, gave him hope.
Mr. Ratcliffe’s mother, Barbara Ratcliffe, joined him on Tuesday at the embassy. She said she spoke with her daughter-in-law on Sunday and described Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe as emotionally fragile.
While passers-by had been supportive, Mrs. Ratcliffe said the embassy’s decision to fence off the building was “childish,” though she noted that it may actually have helped draw more attention to the case.
Mrs. Ratcliffe said she never imagined something like this would happen to her daughter-in-law, who she calls Naz, and could not comprehend why the authorities would detain her.
“I was so jolly naïve I didn’t realize things like this happened,” she said, “What has Naz done but gone with her baby to visit her mom and dad? If that’s a crime, well, that’s ludicrous.”