RICHARD RATCLIFFE ended his hunger strike last weekend, went to hospital for a check-up, and then went home to his seven-year-old daughter, Gabriella, whose mother, a charity worker, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has been held in Iran on trumped-up charges for the past five years (News, 5 November). The story swiftly fell from the headlines. But out of sight must not mean out of mind.
It is now three years since the Iranian judge overseeing Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case told her directly that she remained in prison owing to “a dispute over the interest rates to be paid on historic debts owed to Iran by the UK”. The money was paid by Tehran to Britain to buy 1500 Chieftain tanks that were not delivered after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
As long ago as 2009, the international court in The Hague ruled that Britain should repay the money, which is being held in a court escrow account. Since then, the two countries have been haggling over the amount of interest which ought to have accrued. Recently, however, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister revealed that the two sides had agreed on a sum (which is less than £500 million). Yet now Britain is throwing up more obstacles to the repayment — and Iran continues to hold Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe hostage.
Mr Ratcliffe, who, two years ago, went on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London to secure the return of Gabriella to the UK, this time chose the British Foreign Office as the venue for his second hunger strike, because he sees that the problem is now with Whitehall as much as with Tehran.
It is not hard to see why. The British Government is, once again, moving the goalposts. The Foreign Office minister Lord Goldsmith drew gasps in the House of Lords when he suggested that the debt was not owed to the current regime, that payment would be seen as a ransom for a hostage, and that United States sanctions on Iran made it difficult to pay.
These are weasel words, inconsistent with themselves and inconsistent with the facts. If an international court says that we owe money to Iran, one former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, asked, “Why is it not being paid?”. As for US sanctions, Washington has made it clear that it has no objections to the repayment of the debt, since the US paid a similar sum to Tehran to release four American prisoners in 2016.
British officials now suggest that there are “legal barriers” to repayment, but will not reveal what they are. It is hard not to suspect that Britain is using the unhappy Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a pawn to force Tehran to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump so recklessly cast aside. If that is the case, it is shameful.
Three former Foreign Secretaries — Jeremy Hunt, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Jack Straw — have all now called for the money to be repaid. In 2014, a Conservative backbencher described his own government’s record over the unpaid debt as a “sorry saga”, which was “un-British” and “marred by double dealing and obfuscation”. That backbencher was Ben Wallace, who is now the Defence Secretary. It is time that he rediscovered the courage of those convictions. And the current Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, should back him.