Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Stephen Delahunty evaluates the Government’s current approach to Iran, the debt owed to the country, and the plight of the imprisoned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Shouts of “shame” rang out around Westminster Hall in Parliament yesterday as a statement was read out on behalf of Richard Ratcliffe – claiming that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had walked past and ignored him during his 21-day hunger strike.

The husband of Iranian-British dual-national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe ended his protest at the Government’s inaction in his wife’s case after three weeks spent camped outside the Foreign Office without food. He described Johnson’s absence as “telling”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran since April 2016. In September of that year, she was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of “plotting to topple the Iranian Government”. She was accused by the country of running an “online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has said that she was in Tehran on holiday and not to train journalists. However, in 2017, then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson mistakenly said of her case: “She was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit.” He later apologised for the remark.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband is calling on the UK Government to pay a £400 million debt to Tehran that is owed as part of a deal that was struck with its former close ally, the Shah of Iran, in the 1970s. It is a payment which British ministers have already acknowledged is owed in letters to the lawyers of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

It is largely accepted that the non-payment of the debt has contributed to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s continued detention. Her local MP, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq, has described it as the “elephant in the room”.

During the parliamentary debate on the issue, there was clear cross-party support for the Government to pay the debt and secureZaghari-Ratcliffe’s release – in what one MP described as nothing short of “failed diplomacy”.

Siddiq said that she was “increasingly frustrated” with the Government’s approach and that there was “no question about the fact that the debt is linked to Nazanin’s case”.

Richard Ratcliffe went on hunger strike because he felt that he had no other option, Siddiq said. “He did it because he thinks the upper echelons of Government are not helping with his wife’s plight,” the Hampstead and Kilburn MP said. “I’m very disappointed to say that, in the three weeks that Richard was outside the Foreign Office starving himself, the Prime Minister of our country did not come to visit him.”

A day before the debate, Siddiq described her “shock” at being warned by parliamentary clerks not to make reference in Parliament to the £400 million debt, for fear of prejudicing court proceedings. Despite having raised the issue multiple times before, Siddiq said that she has never been given this warning previously.

“Why do Nazanin’s and the others’ lives matter so little that they can be left hostage for years over the Government’s debt?”Richard Ratcliffe said, in response. “Why is Parliament not allowed to ask the Government to explain? What really is the blockage here?”

The clerks’ letter was issued despite peers discussing the debt for more than half an hour on Monday. They gasped as Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said that paying the debt would undoubtedly be seen as a hostage payment and something that would not be in the Government’s interests.

Lord Goldsmith also repeatedly said that the debt was owed to pre-revolutionary Iran, suggesting that the Government may not believe that the debt was owed to the current regime. He was challenged to accept that the debt was a payment that the Government had been ordered to pay by an international court of arbitration.


A Sixth Christmas Apart

The Government’s unwillingness to pay the current regime is undoubtedly tied to the fact that the UK now considers Iran a threat, contrary to the historic ties of the two nations. The debt is owed from a deal struck with its close ally the Shah who was installed following a UK-US covert operation, known as ‘Boot’, in 1953. 

The Shah ruled for a quarter of a century with the help of a notoriously brutal internal security service, SAVAK, which the UK helped to train. In the mid-1970s, the UK sold more than 1,500 Chieftain battle tanks worth £1.25 billion to its close ally. 

Iran paid £600 million for the tanks in advance, but the UK’s arms sales export subsidiary, the International Military Services, refused to deliver the remaining weaponry when the Shah was deposed. Only 185 tanks had been delivered.

Labour MP Dan Jarvis said during yesterday’s debate that the fate ofZaghari-Ratcliffe “should not be tied to geopolitics and to arms deals”, but declassified files suggest that the Government has a decades-long history of negotiating geo-politically risky deals with Iran.

Indeed, it is clear then the UK Government negotiates with Iran when it suits its own interests and many MPs yesterday questioned when Johnson’s Government would start acting in the interest of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. 

Several MPs pressed Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly to outline what other options the Government has considered such as “translating that debt into humanitarian aid” to act as “a face saving mechanism”. 

Cleverly would not go into details but expressed his concern for Zaghari-Ratcliffe and all detained British nationals in Iran and their families. “Their welfare remains a top priority for this Government,” he added.

At the end of the debate, Siddiq read out a statement from Richard Ratcliffe – marking the 2,054th day of his wife’s detention. 

“We are approaching our sixth Christmas apart. A little girl has been without her mother for five-and-a-half years now. It did not have to be like this,” it read.

“The Prime Minister did not visit me on hunger strike, though he did pass me one day without coming over. His Government continues to put British citizens in harm’s way, Nazanin’s story shames this country.”

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