How many Foreign Secretaries does it take to change a light-bulb? Not entirely certain, but probably not as many as it took to secure last week’s joint release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori after they’d served six and five years respectively in Iranian detention. When Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested on trumped-up spying charges in 2016, Philip Hammond held the post of Foreign Secretary; during her detention, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has watched the revolving door at the Foreign Office from a distance and observed Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and – finally – Liz Truss all pass through it. It’s no great surprise that she has expressed a degree of understandable bitterness that it took until the incumbent holder of the post before she managed to be released and returned to the UK. But her release – and that of Ashoori – was achieved through brokering a deal that can be seen as a last resort on the part of the British Government.
And the deal wot dun it? Repaying a debt stretching all the way back to the Shah of Iran during the last years of his reign in the 1970s, that’s wot. This was the period when, despite being an unelected Absolute Monarch running a ruthless regime fairly intolerant of any opposition, the Shah was the West’s man in the Middle East. Photos that routinely pop-up online of the stylish Western fashions worn by pretty Iranian girls who could’ve just as easily been in Milan as Tehran are often used as pre-1979 evidence of sartorial freedoms being exhibited without fear of condemnation, assault or imprisonment. What we now tend to think of as the characteristic (and considerably less uninhibited) standard uniform issued to all members of the female sex in Iran is conspicuously absent from images that portray the country as an exotic and glamorous destination for the beautiful people. But Iran experienced its own Industrial Revolution during the last Shah’s modernising 38-year reign, creating a prosperous and educated middle-class; the country also capitalised on the energy crisis of the mid-70s, placing it in a strong economic position during its dealings with the West.
In the golden age of OPEC, when the ruling elites of Arab nations belatedly began to take control of their natural resources and recognise the advantage they suddenly had over the struggling European powers, the figure of the chauffer-driven sheik buying up large chunks of London became a familiar one in popular culture. At a time when the Arabs appeared to be in possession of the strongest hand, pro-Western Middle Eastern countries were courted by Europe and America, and the Shah of Iran was one of the favourite rulers to flatter and enter into business with. When the British economy was making one of its perennial journeys up Shit Creek, the mouth-watering prospect of the Shah ordering UK military hardware for the princely sum of around £650 million was a nice little earner for the beleaguered sick man of Europe, and the first batch (185) of an intended 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 Armoured Recovery Vehicles was delivered to Iran.
The full payment for the entire order was received by a MoD subsidiary company, International Military Services, and then the Iranian Revolution occurred; the Shah was deposed, and the rest of the tanks remained on home soil; the rest of the money, however, was not returned when the tanks failed to be delivered. Selling arms to a hardline Islamic Republic that seized American hostages and held them against their will for 444 days wouldn’t have been seen as a good move, and the economic sanctions imposed on Iran also served as a convenient excuse for not repaying the debt from a British perspective. Iran’s efforts to recoup the money owed then dragged on for years; at one point, the International Chamber of Commerce found in favour of Iran, though the agreed payment of £328.5 million from IMS was prevented from being dispatched due to the ongoing sanctions. And this has been the stalemate position for over a decade – until now. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe claims that her captors once offered the unpaid debt as a reason for her detainment; in 2021 Jeremy Hunt also raised the possibility the two cases may be connected, though Boris Johnson denied this. Considering the absolute bloody mess he made of resolving Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation during his own disastrous stint as Foreign Secretary, his denial must have added further fuel to her despair over the diplomatic failings of Britain to secure her release.
Relieved that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release at least took place on his watch (if not the watch he was on when her plight was his responsibility), the PM enthusiastically praised Liz Truss for managing to achieve something he himself failed miserably to do when in her job; but the freed prisoner herself was less complimentary and asked why any of Truss’s immediate predecessors couldn’t have done likewise. ‘I have seen five Foreign Secretaries change over the course of six years,’ she said in a press conference on Monday. ‘How many Foreign Secretaries does it take for someone to come home? We all know how I came home. It should have happened exactly six years ago.’ Zaghari-Ratcliffe gave more credit to the ceaseless campaigning of her husband Richard, and her lack of ‘gratitude’ towards the UK Government was at least accepted as reasonable by Jeremy Hunt, who tweeted ‘Those criticising Nazanin have got it so wrong. She doesn’t owe us gratitude: we owe her an explanation.’
Like Anoosheh Ashoori, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has dual British-Iranian nationality, and the 43-year-old London-based charity worker was visiting family in Iran with her infant daughter in 2016 when she was arrested as a spy and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The sentence became one of house arrest when she was allowed to switch from a prison cell to her parents’ home courtesy of Covid in 2020, though a year later she was the victim of a fresh albeit equally dubious charge of planning to topple the Iranian Government and was sentenced to a further five years. She lost her appeal against this additional conviction and it has taken until Foreign Secretary No.5 before Zaghari-Ratcliffe has finally been able to leave Iran and return home to her husband and child. Her case has been one of the most high-profile over the past six years – thanks in the main to social media campaigning and the ineptitude of the UK Government in negotiating her release; but she wasn’t alone.
There are dozens of holders of dual nationality passports currently behind Iranian bars, many of whom are American-Iranians, though one – Morad Tahbaz – has British-American-Iranian citizenship, something of a double-whammy where the Iranian Government is concerned. The 66-year-old wildlife conservationist was arrested along with seven colleagues in Iran in 2018 on espionage charges whilst they were in the country to track and film endangered species. Although he was released from prison ‘on furlough’ the same day as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, he was back inside within just two days and remains there, despite British Government assurances to his family. In reference to this particular case, the ever-active Jeremy Hunt has said Iran is ‘using an innocent person as a pawn in a diplomatic game’, adding he felt the American element of Mr Tahbaz’s nationality was a major factor in Iran’s reluctance to release him before some bargaining can be concocted.
The welcome freedom Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe can now enjoy after six years is something which a good deal of behind-the-scenes work has undoubtedly ensured, though her captivity was ill-timed in that it has taken place during the most woeful era of Ministers in living memory. Few of us would place our trust in Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab, let alone put our lives in their hands, yet Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had no choice but to do precisely that. In short, she’s bloody well earned her freedom.
© The Editor