Is there anything more frustrating, at the moment, than the story in the British media about the continued imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman who has been detained in Iran since April 2016?
Well yes, actually, there is. Firstly, the fact that she’s not the only British-Iranian citizen being held in Iran on trumped-up charges. Kamal Foroughi, a 77-year-old grandfather, has been held in the same prison as Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, since 2011, on equally bogus charges, despite repeated appeals by his family for the government to intervene to attempt to secure his release.
But secondly, and more crucially, there’s the fact that certain politicians and political commentators in the UK, aided by our own media, appear more than happy to use her as a pawn in their own political power games, while glossing over the fact that she is already a pawn in a much bigger game being played by the Iranian regime.
If one were simply to read the news reports of the last week or so, it would be easy to believe that this poor woman had been about to be released, until our Foreign Secretary went and put his foot in his mouth by saying that she had been training journalists in Iran, at which stage the Iranian authorities decided to use Mr Johnson’s remarks as evidence in a new case against her, potentially doubling her sentence. No wonder everybody is calling for him to be sacked.
But of course, that’s nowhere near the whole truth.
The second set of charges against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was, in fact, filed on 8 October 2017, almost a month before Boris Johnson’s remarks to the Foreign Affairs select committee. And crucially, two days after worldwide media reported that Donald Trump was threatening not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal that had been signed by the Obama administration in early 2016.
What does the Iran nuclear deal have to do with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe? – you may ask. Well, potentially quite a lot.
Iran, it seems, has a history of using Iranian citizens with dual nationality, as bargaining chips in its negotiations with the west. It is deeply suspicious of western governments, and so tends to view any citizen who holds dual nationality as a potential spy. It has arrested a number of dual citizens in recent years, always on vague charges relating to spying or plotting to overthrow the Iranian regime. Furthermore, it does not recognise dual citizenship, so does not allow consular officials from the western nation involved, to visit any of these detainees.
Nevertheless, as part of the nuclear deal that was signed in January 2016, the United States was able to secure the release of five US-Iranian citizens, in exchange for the release of seven Iranians who had been imprisoned in the US. It’s apparently pure coincidence that on the same day the exchange took place, the US also made a payment of USD 1.7bn to the Iranian regime.
Now this is where it gets interesting. This payment of USD 1.7bn related to an outstanding debt of USD 400 million (plus compound interest) which the United States had owed Iran since 1979. The debt dated back to an arms deal that had been made with the former Shah, in which he had paid upfront for a shipment of arms which were ultimately not delivered when the Shah was deposed during the Iranian revolution later that year. So the US paid its debt, prisoners were exchanged, the nuclear deal was signed, everybody walked away happy.
Well, not quite.
It turns out the UK did a very similar deal with the Shah in the 1970s, for the supply of chieftain tanks and support vehicles. Again, the Shah paid upfront. And again, the UK ultimately never delivered the tanks once the Shah was deposed. So the Iranian regime has been trying for almost 40 years to get its money back from the UK government. It was supposed to be repaid in 2010, but somehow this failed to happen. In November 2016, many of the mainstream media sites in the UK reported comments by Richard Ratcliffe, directly attributing his wife’s detention to the failed arms deal. It’s odd that those same news sites now appear to have forgotten that crucial piece of information, in their determination to lay the blame for her continued imprisonment at Boris Johnson’s feet.
Or maybe they haven’t forgotten. It’s possible that the foreign office have managed to convince Richard Ratcliffe, and the media, that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight has nothing to do with the historic arms debt. And it’s possible that it truly does have nothing to do with that particular debt – it may be that separate negotiations are already underway in that regard.
It’s not simply the debt that Iran is concerned about, though. Since the lifting of sanctions against Iran as a result of the nuclear deal agreed by Barack Obama, Iran is keen to ensure not only that the deal remains in place, but also wishes to improve trading relations with the United Kingdom and other western nations. So once again, with Donald Trump refusing the recertify the arms deal, isn’t it handy to have two British-Iranian citizens in prison in Tehran, to motivate the UK to continue to join forces with the EU in pressuring Trump to recertify?
It’s very easy to dismiss all this as a conspiracy theory – except for the fact that Boris Johnson himself, in his testimony to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, made it clear that the Iranian regime are known for imprisoning dual-nationals for the very purpose of using them as bargaining chips. How interesting, that this particular exchange didn’t make it into the headlines in the way that his remarks about her “training journalists” did:
(Ann Clwyd, committee member): “But can I just ask you… do you think we’re playing it in the right way, because the Americans always seem to get their people out?”
(Boris Johnson): Well ….they do.. . sometimes. .. but then what happens is that the Iranians lift some more… and hold them for the same purposes”
(Committee member): “So the Iranians are hostage-taking, is what you’re saying?”
(Boris Johnson): “Well I’m not going to go so far as to say that but what’s certainly the case is that the American efforts to do deals have then been followed by further very very difficult consular cases in which duals have been detained”.
Right. That pretty much sounds like hostage-taking to me.
Finally, let’s talk about that “training journalists” comment, shall we? Our media has been having a field day, saying that Mr Johnson didn’t “stick to the script” about what Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran, that his comment that she was training journalists was what led to her being brought up on a second set of charges and potentially being imprisoned for a further five years.
Well firstly, when Mr Johnson said that she was “teaching people journalism” it was not, in fact, in response to a question about what she was doing in Iran. It was rather part of a broad discussion about how difficult it has been for the foreign office to provide consular assistance, given the Iranian regime does not recognise dual nationality, and also how difficult it has been for the foreign office to try to negotiate her release. His comment that “When you look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing… she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it… at the very limit” was clearly an expression of his frustration at the fact that his Iranian counterparts have clearly told him that the reason for her imprisonment was because she was teaching journalism.
Again, it’s already been widely reported that her initial arrest was related to her former work for Thomson-Reuters and the BBC, and not related to what she was actually doing in Iran at the time of her arrest. So the fact that she was on holiday at the time of her arrest is irrelevant. The determination of the media to focus on the reason for her visit to Iran, in an effort to undermine Boris Johnson and imply that by saying she was “teaching people journalism” he has undermined her case, is irresponsible in the extreme, and plays into the hands of the Iranian regime who seek to use Mr Johnson’s comments as justification for continuing to imprison her.
The continued attempts to shift the focus of public outrage away from the Iranian regime, and onto first Boris Johnson, and now Michael Gove, for his comment to Andrew Marr that he “doesn’t know” what Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran, are a clear ploy by their enemies to try to undermine them. As prominent members of parliament, both potential successors to Theresa May, and both committed Brexiteers, they are each particularly vulnerable to attacks from those who would wish to undermine or derail Brexit, or even destabilise the government in the hopes of forcing a general election.
As Johnson himself said at the same Foreign Affairs select committee meeting, before all the fuss blew up about his so-called gaffe,
“If I may say so, one of the…. disadvantages of escalating these difficult consular cases and having a very loud public campaign in this country, is that that simply strengthens the hand of those who are using these cases for their own internal ends in Iran”
In focusing so heavily on Johnson’s “gaffe”, the UK media has raised the public consciousness of this case to an unprecedented level. Richard Ratcliffe appears to have taken heart from this, and is clearly hopeful that the raised profile of the case will force the foreign office to take additional action to secure her release that it previously had not been willing to take. I can only hope that he is right – however, I fear that by so elevating the profile of this one particular hostage, the press may have simply increased her value to the Iranian regime.