Dark Mode
Tuesday, 28 June 2022
The British government must do much more to help Nazanin
Ian Black
Richard Ratcliffe has been weak, starving, cold and understandably anguished recently. Last Saturday he ended his three-week hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London in support of his wife Nazanin and mother of their seven-year-old daughter, who is being held in Iran on suspicion of being a British spy. “I’m definitely looking rougher and feeling rougher,” he told a TV reporter.

It is important to say that there is not a single shred of evidence that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national, was acting on behalf of the UK government or intelligence agency when she was first jailed in Tehran in April 2016 and held in solitary confinement. At the time she was working for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation teaching journalism to young Iranians in Britain. And she insisted she was on holiday introducing her daughter, Gabriella, to her grandparents. She served four years of a five-year sentence in Evin prison in Tehran, and one under house arrest.

Richard Ratcliffe, a quiet accountant with steely determination, revealed last Thursday that he was nearing the end of his protest because “Gabriella needs two parents.” He is also urging the British government to pay a £400m debt to Iran, which dates back to the 1970s, and is a seen a precondition for the release of Nazanin and other British detainees or, as many prefer to describe them, “hostages.”
And thereby hangs a long and complicated tale. Before the Islamic Revolution, the UK defence ministry struck a deal to sell Tehran more than 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 repair vehicles. Iran paid £600m in advance, but the UK, in February 1979 refused to deliver the remainder when the shah was deposed and replaced by a revolutionary and theocratic regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Only 185 tanks had been delivered.

As Ratcliffe wrote in a newspaper article recently: “This debt is a bilateral issue between the UK and Iran. There is a moral hazard here: it is a debt that has to be paid, a legal obligation. It is not a ransom demand: the longer this debt is left unpaid, the greater the anger and the more interest Iran will demand. …Our family has become part of an acceptable level of collateral damage.”
After years of private negotiations, in 1990 Iran made a claim for its money back for the undelivered weaponry by taking the UK to international arbitration in The Hague. Britain made a counterclaim in 1996, but in an arbitration in 2001 it lost both claims. Iran then sought to have the award enforced in the English courts, something Britain resisted until the defence ministry in 2002 put £350m into the court as security. The UK, after getting the award’s size reduced once in The Hague, finally seemed to have run out of options when its last appeal was dismissed in 2009.

UK governments have been criticised for acting incompetently in this affair. The current Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary back in 2017, was cited saying Nazanin was “teaching people journalism” – something which harmed her case, according to her family. Johnson’s off-the-cuff remarks were cited as proof of Nazanin engaging in “propaganda against the regime” in an Iranian court hearing and by British critics as the essence of carelessness.
It is a legal and of course politically complex issue. EU and UN sanctions are an additional factor. There was also the implicit threat that any UK bank that helped transfer the cash would be vulnerable to US Treasury secondary sanctions or fines. Privately some ministers are opposed giving £400m to any military body in Iran.

Another complicating factor in recent years has been mounting western pressure on Iran to renew the JCPoA nuclear agreement, which US president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 and which his Democratic successor Joe Biden has pledged to return to. Talks are supposed to resume in Vienna later this month with interested parties – including nuclear-armed Israel – signalling ominously that their patience with Iran’s increasingly high levels of uranium enrichment is running out.

There are two other dual national detainees held by Iran apart from Nazanin: retired engineer Anoosheh Ashoori and conservationist Morad Tahbaz. As Jeremy Hunt the former foreign secretary put it: “It is time to bite the bullet, get them home and form a united front with our allies so that Iran’s hostage taking is stamped out once and for all.”

And as Richard Ratcliffe explained in a recent BBC interview: “Our case is associated with the wider manoeuvrings. We are a bargaining chip about the debt, but it is part of a much wider piece about Iran ending sanctions and everyone trying to get the Iran nuclear deal revived. That has got many more moving parts and so is more complicated.”

As for Gabriella, he added poignantly: “She knows that Daddy is on hunger strike to get Boris Johnson to bring Mummy home.” It seems entirely right to ask: when will the UK government explain exactly what it is doing to support Nazanin and her family? And what exactly is the strategy for getting her back from Tehran to London?