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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assistance they are providing to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in preparation for the end of her sentence in March.

My Lords, it is unacceptable and unjustifiable that Iran has chosen to continue with this second and wholly arbitrary case against Nazanin. Iran has put her through an inhumane ordeal. We continue to call on Iran in the strongest possible terms to allow her to return to the UK to be reunited with her family. The Prime Minister has raised her situation with President Rouhani, most recently on 10 March, and the Foreign Secretary continues to engage with Foreign Minister Zarif.

Why did representatives from the embassy not visit Nazanin while she was staying with her parents in Tehran, even to the point of sending a car without a member of staff from the embassy to deliver a gift from her daughter in London? Also, is it not time that we resolved the question of the £400 million debt to Iran, which is not in dispute? Is it not time that we paid it off, at least to clear the air in that respect?

My Lords, we have made many efforts to attend court hearings to witness at first hand the discussions that have taken place which have had a direct impact on this appalling case, but it is not for the UK to force itself into such proceedings. Unfortunately, that cannot happen without the permission of the authorities. However, we will continue to make the case.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. Does the Minister agree that even if Iran has a justified sense of grievance over the unpaid tank money, the £400 million referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, it is beyond the pale for a civilised country to try to make a link between the fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and a financial argument? Does he remember that when President Rouhani took office, he said in his first speech that he wanted to demonstrate to the world the rational face of Iran and the compassionate face of Islam? Is it not now time, at Nowruz, the beginning of Iranian new year, for those qualities to be made a reality?

My noble friend makes an extremely powerful point. Compassion is certainly not a word that can be used to describe the manner in which this British subject has been treated. The UK does not and never will, under any circumstances, accept its dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. The payment of the IMS debt is a long-standing case relating to historical debt owed to pre-revolution Iran, as the noble Lord will know. We continue to explore the options to resolve this case. I cannot go into detail here, but would say simply that the two issues cannot be merged into one.

My Lords, I must press the Minister on the final point made so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. It seems to many people in this country that we should simply pay this debt and get it out of the way, given that senior members of the Government have admitted that we owe it. Also, have the Government made an assessment of other British citizens who might, either now or in the future, be in danger of being held as, quite frankly, hostages?

My Lords, it is unhelpful to connect wider bilateral issues with those being arbitrarily detained in Iran. It remains in Iran’s gift to do the right thing and allow British dual nationals to come home and be reunited with their families. We have been consistently clear that we continue to explore all the options to resolve what is a 40 year-old case. The Government are clear that we do not accept British dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage and we continue to call on the Iranian Government to release all the British dual nationals who have been arbitrarily detained.

My Lords, obviously there is huge public interest in Nazanin’s case, from the time when more than 3.5 million people signed a petition to free her. I would also mention the case of Anousheh Ashouri. Will the Government provide diplomatic protection for him in the way that they extended it to Nazanin last year, as well as providing them both with ongoing consular protection?

My Lords, I will have to take the case mentioned by the noble Baroness back to the FCDO and I will convey her message to colleagues in the ministerial team and officials.

My Lords, I would also like to flag the case not only of Nazanin, and ask why the Government have not fully used the diplomatic protection they have granted to her. It should be extended to another British dual national, Anousheh Ashouri, a retired British-Iranian engineer. He has been held for three and a half years after a grossly unfair trial. When the Minister writes to the other noble Baroness, could he write to me as well with regard to what is happening in this case?

I can certainly provide that assurance. However, perhaps I may make a broader point about diplomatic protection. Exercising diplomatic protection in the case of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others formally raises the issues to a state-to-state matter, and we will take further action where we judge that it will help to secure her full and permanent release. However, it is important that we act in a way that we judge, with all the information we have, most likely to be in the best interests of each of our detainees. We cannot, as noble Lords will understand, provide a running commentary on consular actions in this, or any, specific case.

My Lords, in light of the revelations about torture in Nazanin’s case, can the Government update us on how they have revised their protocols to protect from torture the other British citizens being held by Iran? Can he tell us what has changed?

We have said on many occasions that Iran continues to put Nazanin through a cruel and intolerable ordeal; there is no question about that. She must be allowed to return permanently to her family in the UK and we will continue to do all we can to achieve that. We shall apply as much pressure as we can in her case and in the case of other dual nationals being held arbitrarily by the Iranian regime.

My Lords, we all feel the most immense sympathy about the appalling case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but it is entirely the fault of the Iranian Government. Almost 12 years ago, I visited Iran just before the Iranian Green Movement was crushed and I remember a Minister looking us in the eye and telling us that black was white—in other words, lying to us. They are not a Government who should be dealt with like a normal democratic Government. Does my noble friend share my bemusement that people seem to think that this is in some way the fault of the British Government? Rather, we should understand that our citizens must not be held hostage and used as leverage against us.

My noble friend makes a powerful point and, yes, I agree entirely that it remains completely in the gift of Iran to do the right thing by allowing all British dual nationals home to be reunited with their families. As I said in answer to a previous question, we do not believe that it is helpful or right to conflate different issues or to enable Iran to justify holding our citizens as collateral in the pursuit of other ancillary aims.

My Lords, striking the balance between state concerns is key to this. Our deep concerns have been voiced vehemently over time and will have been well understood by Tehran. However, would radio silence and quiet diplomacy where required be prudent now in order not to exacerbate a tense situation at this critical juncture? We should encourage no triumphalism from any quarter in the event of a favourable outcome.

My Lords, we have a clear interest and goal here. Our goal is to do everything we can to ensure that Nazanin is returned to this country to be able to live safely and happily with her family. We have raised the issue over and over again at the highest levels of government. As I said, on 10 March, the Prime Minister raised the issue with President Rouhani. There has been regular and ongoing personal engagement between the Foreign Secretary and his counterpart and we have been lobbying Iranian interlocutors at every opportunity. The UK Government, from the PM down, are dedicated to supporting Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family and we are determined to see them reunited. This is not about scoring points.

I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary what our policy is on state hostages. Will the Prime Minister raise the issue at the G7 meeting in Cornwall later this year?

I thank the noble Baroness for promoting me to Foreign Secretary. I would say that it is very likely that the Prime Minister will raise these issues, not only at the G20 meeting in Cornwall but at subsequent events. However, it is not for me to pre-empt the discussions that he will have.