Iran hostage releases 'held up' by UK government infighting

Former ministers say they do not know why it took so long to clear historic arms deal debt

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella outside 10 Downing Street. PA
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The UK failed to pay a historic debt that secured the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe for nearly three years despite key government figures backing the move, MPs heard on Tuesday.

A committee investigating state hostage-taking heard that the prime minister, foreign and defence secretaries wanted to pay a historic £400 million ($490.6m) arms debt to Iran from about May 2019 but the UK failed to act swiftly to settle it.

The debt, related to an aborted 1970s arms deal, was finally repaid this year and was soon followed by the release of British-Iranian citizens Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori in March 2022.

“I don’t think the British state can look at the details of what happened with any pride at all,” Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary, told the parliamentary foreign affairs committee. “It took far too long to resolve this situation.”

He added: “You have to have accountability. The British state has to say a terrible injustice was done against some of our citizens and we just took too long to sort it out.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Ashoori had been held on trumped up security charges since 2016 and 2017, respectively. The two former prisoners and their families believe they would have been released sooner if the debt had been paid earlier, prompting the inquiry.

Mr Hunt, who quit as foreign secretary in July 2019 after losing to Boris Johnson in a contest to lead the ruling Conservative Party, said he did not know why his successors did not act more quickly to settle the debt.

Alistair Burt, who was Middle East minister from 2017 to 2019, told the committee that the Treasury had taken a long time to come to a decision because of concerns about paying money to an Iranian military organisation that was under sanctions.

The hearing heard that Iran’s former foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had written to the UK confirming that the money would be used for non-military purposes as the two sides tried to work around the sanctions issue.

Mr Burt said that former defence secretary Gavin Williamson had opposed the payment on principle but following his departure from office in May 2019, key ministries all approved the move and were awaiting a go-ahead from the Treasury.

“I genuinely don’t know the answer why the Treasury took so long to come to their view, what in 2021 made them change their mind. I wasn’t certain,” said Mr Burt.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her daughter Gabriella as they leave 10 Downing Street, central London, after a meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mr Hunt was also asked about incorrect claim made in 2017 by then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists at the time of her arrest the year before.

Four days after Mr Johnson's remarks as foreign secretary, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was summoned before an unscheduled court hearing, where his comments were cited as proof that she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.

Mr Hunt denied that Mr Johnson's comments made any impact on Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release.

“Although that particular incident has often been talked about, that was never raised with me by the Iranians as the reason we weren't settling the issue, it was always the debt, the debt, the debt,” he said.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe told Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday that she had been “living in the shadow of his words” when the pair met for the first time since she was released after being detained in Iran for six years.

The committee said the inquiry will consider options to deter future incidents of people being taken prisoner to promote political ambitions.

A previous report published in 2020 found that the policy tools to resolve such consular disputes were “entirely ineffectual and required revision.”

Updated: May 17, 2022, 6:31 PM