After spending almost six years in detention in Iran, the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was freed on March 17. On the same day the mother-of-one was released the British government paid an estimated $557 million owed to Iran.
A UK inquiry tasked with investigating Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case was announced on March 31, following a request by the UK Member of Parliament Tulip Siddiq.
Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of The Guardian newspaper speaks to Kayhan Life about the inquiry and what is likely to be investigated by the Foreign Affairs select committee; Iran’s hostage taking policy; and why some detained dual nationals once quiet about their cases have decided to launch global campaigns.
The following is a transcript of the online interview with Kayhan Life editor Natasha Phillips which took place on Tuesday, April 5.
KL: The UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee has agreed to hold an inquiry into Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention in Iran, where she spent almost six years in prison and on occasion under house arrest, on charges including “plotting to topple the Iranian government,” while Iran’s regime allegedly insinuated repeatedly that her release was tied to the British government paying a historic multimillion pound debt it owed Iran, which the UK settled on the 17th of March, the same day Nazanin was released. What is the inquiry likely to investigate?
P: The inquiry will investigate the way the Foreign Office handled the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and why it took so long for her to be released — six years — and why other dual nationals were released at the same time like Anoosheh Ashoori. So it will look at that and then I think the chairman of the committee Tom Tugendhat, a conservative, would like the committee also to look at the wider issue of hostage taking by states and whether there’s anything that the international community can do more than it is at present to try and resist this kind of activity.
KL: Should the British government be nervous about this inquiry and what could the inquiry mean for Iran’s government?
P: I think the British government should have some concern about it because it did take so long to get them released. And I think what will become clear is a number of ministers did take the view that this 400 million pound debt that the UK did owe Iran arising out of an arms sales deal in the seventies, that that debt should have been paid earlier and that it was legitimate for Iran to be asking for that debt to be paid.
P: So I think there’ll be some probing questions about why, if so many ministers at various times said the debt should be paid, it wasn’t paid.The government’s been always very reluctant to discuss that. They come up with various reasons such as it was impossible to pay because of the sanctions, but I think in reality it was possible to pay as we’ve seen at the very end of this whole process. The debt was paid, and a method was found that got around existing American sanctions.
P: So the issue will be if it was possible to pay [the debt] in 2022, why was it not possible to be paid earlier? I think lastly, the really important point is that this is a debt, it’s not a ransom issue. This committee will have to discuss and review whether it was a debt or whether it was a ransom.
KL: In her letter to the Foreign Affairs committee, Nazanin’s MP [Member of the UK Parliament], Tulip Siddiq specifically asks the committee to look into an incident in 2013 involving Iranian officials in the UK. Are there any more details about this incident and why it might be significant to Nazanin’s case?
P: It’s quite well known this incident because it was actually discussed, ironically, by the current Defense Secretary when he was a backbencher Mr. Ben Wallace, and was raised in a debate in Westminster Hall, where he said “Why on earth is it that one branch of the UK government has invited the Iranian delegation to discuss this particular debt and another branch of the government which was [UK] Home Office related decided that they should be arrested, put into prison and deported?”
P: It seems to me one branch of the UK government didn’t know what the other branch was doing. So it was a sort of failure of communication, and you can’t imagine the impact that would have on the Iranian government — that their officials have come over at the invitation of the British government and then they’re thrown into the slammer [jail] for three or four days before being deported — and it just beggars belief that something so stupid happened.
KL: We know there are other detained foreign nationals in Iran and several British Iranians still, who were not part of the deal to free Nazanin, and Anoosheh Ashoori. However detained British-Iranian Morad Tahbaz was allegedly included in the agreement, and was supposed to be placed on furlough as part of that deal but has since been returned to prison. Why do you think the Iranian government has chosen to do that?
P: Well, I think there’s been over more than a year, an ambiguity in the Iranian’s eyes about whether Morad Tahbaz has to be included in a British deal or whether they were going to treat him as an American and as a separate bargaining point because he is in the unusual position of being a trinational being Iranian, American and British.
P: Certainly, I think 18 months ago, there was an attempt to include him in a deal which was seen as a means to bring Nazanin-Zaghari-Ratcliffe home and the Iranians resisted that. In effect what the foreign secretary has done this time was to accept that that was not in the bag, but she hoped she got an agreement whereby indefinite furlough effectively was allowed and he could stay in his home in Tehran.
P: Something went wrong in the communication about that. I think the British government made a very pragmatic decision, rightly or wrongly and felt that he should be excluded from the right to return to the UK.
KL: Another detained British-Iranian Mehran Raoof had initially decided not to publicize his case and wanted to stay very much under the radar, but that now seems to have changed with the appointment of Satar Rahmani, who is a supporter and now Mehran’s spokesperson. What could have prompted Mehran to change his strategy?
P: Well, I think he’s seen what’s happened in effect to the people who have been released because they made the noise and the people that haven’t been released who either of their own choice or at the advice of others chose to stay under the radar. I think there’s been a big discussion within his group of friends about what should happen if they decide to go public. The evidence certainly of the last month is that campaigning and making yourself difficult to the Foreign Office and making your case known to the media helps rather than hinders your release.
KL: What do we know about Shahram Shirkhani’s case, who’s remained largely under the radar until now?
P: I think as far as I understand it, the case is largely [inaudible]. He was arrested for [spying] activities. There is now quite a long statement which was put up in the last three days setting out his case. At the moment I’m not sure yet that the Foreign Office has even acknowledged the existence of his case. At one point they did refer to him over the last three or four years but since then there’s been complete silence about his case.
KL: You’ve covered detentions of dual nationals in Iran for many years and as an extremely experienced journalist there must be some things which really stand out for you about these cases. What are they?
P: The first thing is a positive thing, which is I think that families in all these cases are extraordinary, ordinary people who have shown themselves to be both brilliant campaigners with incredible compassion and love for their families who have been detained in this awful way. I’ve got nothing but admiration for them. So that’s on the positive side.
P: On the negative side, I think the Foreign Office has been excessively secretive about what’s been going on and I think they’re not really willing to put their decision making processes up to public scrutiny and have not really been wanting to be accountable for it. I think their relationships with these families has been deeply ambivalent because I think ultimately these individuals have been put in jail because of their [government’s] decision making and not because of something the individuals have done and so I think they’re owed more than the explanations they’re given by Foreign Office officials.
P: You often find this conflict with families in that they say individually Foreign Office officials are very kind and considerate but there’s always a point at which they’re not told what’s really going on. For instance, the final negotiations that went on were kept from the families and they felt misled. So even though it’s a happy story at one end, there were other people who felt betrayed. So there’s a way in which the Foreign Office have to think about the dilemma these families are in and to be more open and honest with them.
KL: Thank you so much, Patrick.