UK government accused of diplomacy failure over jailing of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Pressure mounts on Britain to pay back debt to secure aid worker’s release

Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over a failure of British diplomacy amid fears Iran will send detained aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe back to jail.

The British-Iranian citizen was on Monday handed a one-year sentence and is banned from leaving the country for a further year after being found guilty of “propaganda against the system”.

Her lawyer said the charge stemmed from her attendance at a 2009 protest outside Iran’s embassy in London.

Her husband Richard Ratcliffe labelled his wife's treatment "torture" and on Tuesday warned the government needed to take a tougher line with Iran or her release would likely be delayed until 2023.

He revealed the Foreign Office had told him on Friday that it had not raised a dossier on her torture and mental condition with the Iranians for fear of offending them.

Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said Iran had put Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other detained British nationals through “a cruel and inhumane ordeal” and the government continued to press for their release.

But Mr Cleverly declined to be drawn on whether the UK would impose sanctions on Iranian officials in retaliation for the new sentence.

“I’m not willing to discuss future sanctions designations for fear that might be prejudicial to any future success,” he told the House of Commons on Tuesday.

“We do of course recognise that Iran’s behaviour is unacceptable in a number of ways - not just in the detention of dual nationals, but in regard to their international and regional actions. We call upon Iran to step away from this dangerous and self-destructive route they have taken.”

Tulip Siddiq, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s constituency MP, said there was “no evidence” that the prime minister was doing anything differently to secure the mother-of-one’s release.

She called on the UK government to repay a £400 million ($555m) debt that Britain owes to Iran for a failed tank deal struck just before the 1979 revolution.

A High Court hearing between the Iranian Ministry of Defence and International Military Services, a now defunct arms sales arm of the UK Ministry of Defence, was last week postponed.

“We are not naive,” Ms Siddiq said.

“We cannot deny the fact Nazanin was handed a fresh new sentence a week after the IMS debt court hearing was delayed.”

Iranian media outlets reported that a deal has been struck Britain to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, pictured with her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella, from detention in Tehran. AFP
Iranian media outlets reported that a deal has been struck Britain to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, pictured with her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella, from detention in Tehran. AFP

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons’ Defence Committee, said Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was a victim of internal Iranian politics.

“I'm very sorry that we've seen Iran play games with Nazanin as she's been through absolute hell with solitary confinement, prison for over five years and denied access to her family," he said.

“She’s now caught up in in a presidential election, with the huge divisions between the moderates and the hardliners in Iran who fear that any engagement with the West will not be rewarded with improvements to the economy.”

He added that Donald Trump's tough approach to Iran with harsh sanctions had “soured the atmosphere” and as a result “a lot of trust has to be rebuilt”

Mr Ellwood is among a growing number of politicians who believe Britain should repay the money after it was given for Chieftain tanks it never delivered because of American sanctions.

“We should pay it because it's not our money and it gives cause for Iran to be difficult,” he said.

However, Mr Cleverly said anger should be directed at Iran as the UK government was doing everything it could against a hostile power.

“Iran is the one responsible for putting Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe through this cruel and inhumane ordeal over the last five years,” he said.

“It is on them."

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the UK should not pay "ransom money" but make it clear through anti-corruption sanctions how Iran’s leaders “are stealing from the Iranian people”.

The 42-year-old mother had just completed a five-year sentence on spying charges before being found guilty of the propaganda offences.

Mr Ratcliffe said the new sentence was worse than he expected.

“There’s a macho stand-off there that has an innocent mum and baby caught in the middle of it," he told the Evening Standard.

“I think in reality there are ways they could pay [the debt] – there’s obviously a fig leaf of sanctions. The Government has to look at what makes British citizens safe. Not paying angry people money back is an odd way to keep your own citizens safe.”

UK 'working with US' on release of jailed citizens

Even before reports of the new sentences, families were enduring a grim period with the most recent foreign or dual citizen to be released by Iran, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, freed in November 2020.

A British-Iranian and a German-Iranian are set to stand trial this week on unspecified charges, six months after they were rounded up in an operation against activists in Tehran.

The Briton, labour rights activist Mehran Raoof, 64, has been in solitary confinement at Evin jail and spent some time on hunger strike, according to colleague Satar Rahmani.

Mr Raoof and Nahid Taghavi, 66, are due in an Iranian court this week as talks in Vienna continue to try to secure a nuclear accord with Iran.

Another British-Iranian citizen, Anoosheh Ashoori, 67, is showing symptoms of Covid-19 in Evin jail as a fourth wave of the disease hits Iran.

He became ill after returning from a five-day release when he was visited by the UK’s ambassador in Tehran. Mr Ashoori also received a call from UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is actively involved in the issue.

Inmates at Evin were told that a warden and an arts teacher contracted the illness. British Foreign Ministry officials were sent a recording of Mr Ashoori's coughing to highlight his plight.

His wife Sherry Izadi joined other relatives and supporters in urging governments to link their fate to attempts to revive the nuclear deal.

“They [British officials] said there are discussions going on intensively but they have never made an explicit link that this is happening at the Vienna talks or in behind-the-scenes lobbying,” she said.

“It’s so hard to work out the inner workings of the Iranians.”

Ms Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic who spent more than two years in prison on charges widely regarded as baseless, was freed in 2020 as part of a complex prisoner swap involving three convicted Iranian bombers held in prisons in Thailand.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry official said last week on the social media site Clubhouse that the regime was open to a prisoner swap involving all detained dual citizens, but officials at the Vienna talks have not spoken publicly about the subject.

Mr Johnson said on Monday that the UK was “working with our American friends on this issue” of jailed dual citizens.

During a call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last month, Mr Johnson raised Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case and Iran's breaches of the nuclear deal, Downing Street said.

The families said they were given no indication of any progress on their release.

There are no known Iranian prisoners held by the UK that are wanted by the regime but the £400m debt is viewed as key to any diplomatic breakthrough.

Former UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday it was unclear why the debt had not been paid given that the British government accepted it owed the money.

Mr Johnson and Mr Raab condemned the latest sentence given to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Mr Raab described the aid worker’s treatment as “inhumane and wholly unjustified”.

“It’s wrong that she’s in there in the first place and we are working very hard to secure her release from Iran, to return to her family here in the UK. The government will not stop and will redouble our efforts, we’re working with our American friends on this issue as well,” Mr Johnson said.

Mr Ratcliffe said his wife sounded calm, but predicted her condition would deteriorate if she was sent back to Evin prison, where she served part of her five-year sentence.

The 42-year-old has always denied being a spy.

She was released from jail in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Middle East. She was ordered to wear an electronic tag while staying at her parents' house in Tehran.

But she returned to court later that month to face the latest propaganda charges.

Human rights charity Redress said it was not yet clear how Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be expected to serve the sentence given that she has already spent a year under effective house arrest.

“Nazanin has already suffered severe physical and psychological impacts from the torture and ill-treatment she has been subjected to during the past five years," the charity said.

"A further sentence to prison or house arrest may cause irreparable damage to her health.”

More on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to take legal fight to UN over latest trial

The never-ending trials of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Charity reveals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s years of torture in Iran jail

Updated: April 27, 2021 07:26 PM

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