Image credit: Free Nazanin Twitter account.@FreeNazanin

By Natasha Phillips

A longstanding debt owed to Iran by the UK and linked to the unjust detention of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe must be paid, Tulip Siddiq, a member of Britain’s parliament has said.

Siddiq made the comment during a packed Nov. 16 debate inside the House of Commons  which she initiated to raise Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case with the British government. This is the ninth debate that Siddiq has hosted in parliament about Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention.

“I have become increasingly frustrated that ministers are ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the fact that this case is now linked to the 400 million pounds [$557 million] that this country owes Iran,” Siddiq said. “We need to pay our debt and challenge Iran [on its behavior].”

The Iranian government has previously implied that Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be freed if the debt — accrued for tanks ordered by the Shah of Iran shortly before the 1979 Iranian revolution but never delivered —was settled.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been repeatedly detained by Iran’s regime for more than five years on charges including “plotting to topple the Iranian government,” which the UK and the US have called “baseless.” The mother of one was charged again on April 26 for spreading propaganda against the regime and sentenced to a year in prison, which she has yet to serve.

During the debate Siddiq read out a note from Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe.

“Today marks day 2,054 of Nazanin’s detention. We are approaching our sixth Christmas apart. A little girl has been without her mother for five and a half years. It did not have to be like this,” the note said.

“The prime minister did not visit me on hunger strike, though he did pass one morning without coming over. His government continues to put British citizens in harm’s way. Nazanin’s story shames this country,” the statement concluded.

Several lawmakers speaking at the debate also called on the British government to pay the debt, including: former Labour Party leaderJeremy Corbyn; former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; and current Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Layla Moran.

“We owe the debt; we should pay the debt. It is now increasingly clear that there are ways in which that could happen,” Moran said.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith also challenged the government on its strategy for securing Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

“How is it that the United States, Australia, France and Germany have all now successfully negotiated the release of their citizens who were arbitrarily detained in Iran, yet we have made no progress?” Duncan-Smith said. “Perhaps [Siddiq] could challenge the government on that.”

Answering questions on behalf of the government, UK Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly said: “The foreign secretary and this government continue to be clear in our discussions with Iran that under no circumstances should Nazanin be returned to prison, that we would react strongly if she were and that she should instead be allowed to return home to her family immediately.”

“We constantly review what other steps are possible, and we weigh up all the diplomatic and legal tools available to secure her release,” Cleverly added.

Addressing comments by Cleverly that the debt would be perceived as ransom money if it were paid to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Siddiq said: “This is not a ransom; it is a debt. It was ruled in international tribunals that we owe Iran this money. Anyone hiding behind the fact that it is a ransom is wrong.”

Discussions about the debt — which is the subject of ongoing court proceedings between the British government’s International Military Services and Iran’s defense ministry — were allowed after the chair for the debate Sir Charles Walker waved rules in place which prevent lawmakers from revealing details about legal cases.

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