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Boris Johnson Accused Of Using Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe As A "Bargaining Chip" In A Debt Row With Iran

Boris Johnson has been accused of a 'dismal failure' to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (Alamy)

4 min read

The Prime Minister has been accused of failing to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian jail – where she was yesterday sentenced to serve another year – as a result of unresolved debt with the country. 

Evie Aspinall, a researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group think tank told PoliticsHome Nazanin’s case is a “tragic example of a human being becoming a bargaining chip in a much wider diplomatic row”.

"The timing of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentencing just a week after the court hearing over the UK’s £400million tank deal debt was postponed, emphasises how keenly Iran has sought to make this a diplomatic issue," Aspinall said. 

“While it appears unlikely that the debt will be repaid – not least of all, because any such payment may well breach EU sanctions that have now been transferred to UK law – it is clear that Iran is continuing to hold onto its leverage through the ongoing detainment of a British citizen.”

In an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on Tuesday, MP Tulip Siddiq, who represents the London constituency where Zaghari-Ratcliffe lived, said Boris Johnson had failed to stand up for her with Tehran. 

She said the UK cannot negotiate Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release while it still owes Iran at least £400million, and criticised the government for never acknowledging the two issues are linked.

Siddiq dismissed the foreign office minister James Clevery’s assertion the government “remains committed to doing all that we can to secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe's return home”.

"From where I'm standing, I've seen no evidence on the part of the Prime Minister so far," the Labour MP said. 

"At the heart of this tragic case is the Prime Minister's dismal failure to release my constituent and to stand up for her, and his devastating blunder in 2017 when he was foreign secretary – when he exposed his complete ignorance of this tragic case, and put more harm in Nazanin's way.

"The Prime Minister did not even arrange for UK officials to attend Nazanin's recent court hearing, which might have ensured she got a free and fair trial," she continued. 

"He still hasn't got his Government to pay the £400million debt that we as a country owe Iran.”

Siddiq drew a connection between Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentencing and a delay of the IMF's debt court hearing, which took place a week earlier. 

”We MPs might be many things but we're not naive," she said. 

Responding to questions about the UK’s debt to Iran, Cleverly said the "legal situation has been settled” and the government is “investigating by ways this can be resolved”, but refused to link it with Nazanin’s ongoing imprisonment.

The tank issue goes back to the 1970s, when Iran purchased 1,500 chieftain tanks and 250 support vehicles at a cost of £650million.

The ruling shah paid up front but the UK only delivered 185 of the tanks before the regime was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.

The rest of the order was never fulfilled as relations between the two countries broke down, and Tehran has been chasing to get a refund on the undelivered vehicles ever since.

The company that made the deal with Iran – International Military Services Ltd, a now-defunct Ministry of Defence body that solely exists to deal with the debt issue – agreed to deposit the balance with the High Courts as far back as 2002, but the money was never delivered due to a combination of legal battles and international sanctions.

The UK has gone to court to question the size of the debt, as well as its legitimacy, even in the years since an international arbitration in 2008 ruled the money was owed to Iran.Johnson was believed to have been considering paying the debt back in 2017 when he was foreign secretary, but EU sanctions may have prevented him.

Those same rules are now part of UK policy towards Iran, and there are similar US sanctions which might prevent ministers from handing over the money, despite defence secretary Ben Wallace previously saying Britain should clear the debt.

On Tuesday  Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe called on the UK government to pay a historic debt it owes Iran to help secure the release of his wife after more than five years held “hostage”.

He told the Evening Standard she was being used as a “political bargaining chip”.

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

Asked about the tank debt a foreign office spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “We continue to explore options to resolve this 40 year old case and will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing.”

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