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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Volume 816: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to secure the release and return to the United Kingdom of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

My Lords, it is unacceptable and unjustifiable that Iran has chosen to continue with this second, 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 raised her situation with former President Rouhani, and the Foreign Secretary continues to engage with Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, most recently on 8 November.

—in his determination to get his wife home safe. We understand why he ended his hunger strike, and it was right for him to do so.

Will the Minister now confirm that there is no doubt whatever that the United Kingdom Government owe Iran £400 million for tanks the Iranian Government paid for but which were never supplied? Secondly, when the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he pledged that that debt would be paid, and it is further acknowledged that when it is paid, Nazanin will be released. Can the Minister therefore use his undoubted influence with the Prime Minister to get him to make it his top priority to resolve this issue and get Nazanin released and returned home to her husband and daughter, because it is the Prime Minister’s moral duty to do so?

Like the noble Lord, I recognise the commitment and huge sacrifice that has been shown by Mr Ratcliffe and the families of other British detainees in seeking the release and return of their loved ones detained in Iran. We continue to call on Iran to end Nazanin’s suffering immediately and to allow her to return home to her family in the UK. But I need to be clear, in the place of my colleague and noble friend Lord Ahmad, who is not here to answer the Question, that the UK does not and never will accept our dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. Our priority is securing Nazanin’s immediate release so that she can be reunited with her family.

While it is absolutely right that the dreadful detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe should be kept totally separate from other issues in the relationship with the Iranian Government, will my noble friend explain the delays in the payment of the proper debt for the Chieftain tanks that were never delivered? It seems to me a straightforward matter, entirely separate from this horrible detention issue, which surely could be settled, and settled fast. Can he explain what the delay is because we do not understand?

As we have said—I know my colleague has said this many times from this Dispatch Box—we are actively exploring the options to resolve this case, but it is not helpful in any way to connect wider bilateral issues with those arbitrarily detained in Iran. It remains in Iran’s gift to do the right thing and to allow British dual nationals home to be reunited with their families.

My Lords, I have met Richard Ratcliffe and I associate myself and colleagues who have met him with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. In May, the Foreign Secretary said that the treatment of Nazanin amounts to torture. There is no point in a British Government making clear assertions on the contravention of a UN convention if they do not follow through with any actions. When I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, why the Government had not formally requested that Iran investigate the accusation of torture, he said that he would ensure that it was in the Foreign Secretary’s briefing pack when she met Richard. Why have the Government not formally requested that Iran act on the convention which it is duty bound to carry through?

My Lords, no one disputes that Iran’s treatment of Nazanin and others in similar circumstances is inhumane and cruel, exceeds any normal boundaries of behaviour by a state and is completely unacceptable, but I cannot add more to what my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said in answer to the same question just a few weeks ago.

My Lords, the IMS payment is a long-standing case relating to a historic debt owed to pre-revolution Iran. We continue to explore options, as I said before, to resolve this case.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my interests as set out in the register. I totally support what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said. The behaviour of the Iranian Government in this affair is disgraceful, but the Government have not been clear. They have been very ambiguous in answering questions in the House about this issue, including, as was said, in the previous debate in which it was raised. Will the Minister confirm or deny that fear of American sanctions is preventing this money being paid?

My Lords, from my vantage point, if I may couch it that way, I am absolutely certain that the premise of the noble Lord’s question and the assumption within it is not correct.

My Lords, what does the Minister think Governments on both sides might have to learn from a simple prayer that was once prayed on this day in Coventry, after the destruction of the city? It is a simple prayer but a brave one; it simply says: “Father, forgive.” It does not try to forgive the other side, or even to absolve the other side from responsibility, but it does say that, somewhere along the line, both sides, in whatever proportion, need to accept that a very deep hole has been dug and suffering people have fallen into it. In this case, there is a suffering woman at the bottom of the hole, and her husband and child. Can we not do more to accept that there is something we have a responsibility for?

My Lords, I do not accept, and the Government cannot accept, that we have a responsibility for the incarceration and appalling treatment of Nazanin. This is a decision made by the Government of Iran, and one that they can reverse. Of course, we will, and we continue to, do as much as we possibly can to secure her release. That is why this issue—this appalling case—has been escalated to the highest level, not least in the form of diplomatic protection, which means that it becomes a case between states as opposed to the prior situation.

My Lords, many people still do not understand the issue of the £400 million that we owe to Iran; it keeps getting raised. The Americans have paid money to the Iranian Government despite their sanctions. Can the Minister please explain clearly what is going on? Many of us who have met Richard Ratcliffe on his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office have given him an undertaking that we shall continue to press the Government. This will go on and on until the Government do something.

My Lords, the Government are doing something. We are engaging at the highest possible level; whether it is the Prime Minister or the previous or current Foreign Secretary, engagement happens on a very regular basis. I do not accept the idea that the Government are doing nothing. However, were the Government to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to the Iranian Government, that would undoubtedly be seen as payment for a hostage situation.

I am very surprised at the Minister’s answers in relation to the £400 million. Does he accept that an international arbitration tribunal—an independent tribunal—has ruled that this country owes £400 million to the state of Iran? Does he accept that? Does he also accept that it is vital that this country complies with its international obligations to meet international arbitration tribunal reports? Does he also accept that to pay that sum without further delay would be to meet our obligations, and not to pay a ransom?

My Lords, no one disputes that there is a historic debt, one which was owed to pre-revolutionary Iran. There is no dispute or debate about that. However, here I am answering a Question about Nazanin, yet the majority of questions relate to that money. The combination of that issue with the issue that we are dealing with—an appallingly tragic human case—is exactly what we should be avoiding. Otherwise, this does become a hostage situation and any payment of any money becomes payment for a hostage. That is not in our international current, medium or long-term interests.

Let us put it a different way. When I met Richard outside the FCDO, he described the policy of the Government as a “policy of waiting”. The Minister has said that they are doing things; well, this House wants to hear precisely what they are doing. One thing this Government should be doing is ensuring that we improve relationships with the Government in Iran—to ensure that all the outstanding issues, including of those who remain in prison, are properly resolved. So what are the Government doing?

The Government certainly want to improve our relationship with Iran. In direct answer to the noble Lord’s questions, we have raised this case at the highest levels of government at every opportunity. The Prime Minister raised it with President Rouhani on 10 March this year. The previous Foreign Secretary engaged regularly with Foreign Minister Zarif. The current Foreign Secretary, who has been in post for only a few weeks, has spoken twice now with her counterpart, most recently just a week and a half ago. Our ambassador and the wider team continue to lobby Iranian interlocutors at every opportunity. They helped to secure the release of Nazanin on furlough and continue to push for a full and permanent release, most recently on 9 November. As I said earlier, escalation in the form of diplomatic protection on 7 March 2019 represented a formal recognition that her treatment breaches Iran’s obligations under international law and raises the status of this case to the highest possible level.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the ambitions of this country is that Iran should adhere to the rule of law? If so, should we not be adhering to the rule of law—and, therefore, will he now give us a very clear “yes” or “no” reply to my noble and learned friend Lord Judge’s very straightforward question, which he has yet to answer?

Yes, of course, it is in everyone’s interest that Iran as a country adheres to the rule of law, just as the UK does on a routine and permanent basis.

My Lords, the Government do have some responsibility for the suffering that Nazanin is experiencing because our Prime Minister told a lie that she was teaching journalism. That meant that the Iranian Government were much more exercised about her presence in Iran when, in fact, she was only there to see her family. Has the Prime Minister shown any remorse?

The Prime Minister continues to engage on this issue with his counterpart, as does the entire FCDO. The Government continue to prioritise this case, as I have relayed to the House, and will continue to do so.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister not accept that the answers that he is giving this afternoon—stonewalling answers—are doing no good to the Government and, most of all, no good to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Can we please accept that this country does owe this money? Can it not be paid immediately to the United Nations? That would be a good way of having it transferred. Can we not have a positive move to get back this poor woman, who has been tortured and incarcerated as an innocent being?

My Lords, at the risk of being repetitive, it would be a grave error for this Government to behave as though that historic debt is in any way connected to the incarceration of Nazanin, in the manner in which the noble Lord suggests. It would be disastrous foreign policy.

My Lords, the problem is that the Iranians regard the two as linked. If we will not accept that, how is the difficulty to be resolved? The Prime Minister made a very foolish intervention; one might think that that increases his moral obligation. If there is any question of the Government being in some way concerned about the attitude of the United States, does anyone here think that the United States would hesitate for a moment if the circumstances were reversed? There is, not least, very strong anecdotal evidence that President Obama did exactly that: release in return for resources.

My Lords, if it is the case that Iran conflates these two issues—and I think the noble Lord is right to say that it does—that is even more reason why we should not allow dual nationals to be used as diplomatic leverage.