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Iran Detainees

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 17 March 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 16 March.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the release of British nationals from detention in Iran—and, in parallel, on the repayment of the International Military Services debt. After years of unfair and unjust detention by the Government of Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have, this afternoon, finally been allowed to board a plane and leave the country. They are on their way home. They will land in the UK later today and will be reunited with their families. Morad Tahbaz has also been released from prison on furlough. I know that the whole House and the whole country will rejoice at this news and share in the relief that their horrendous ordeal is over.

Nazanin was held in Iran for almost six years, and Anoosheh almost five. Morad has been in prison for four. Their release is the result of years of tenacious British diplomacy. I want to thank our Omani friends and Minister Badr for their help in bringing our nationals home. I pay tribute to the efforts of many in this House, particularly the honourable Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby). I pay tribute, as well, to my predecessors, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who have all worked hard to resolve this issue. Most of all, I want to express my admiration for the incredible resolve and determination shown by Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and their families. I have been in contact with them throughout, as have our specialist consular teams. Their suffering has moved us all, and so does the prospect of their being reunited with their loved ones once again, after this long and cruel separation.

We secured the release, and Morad’s furlough, through intense diplomatic and political engagement at every level. We stepped up these efforts over the last six months. On becoming Foreign Secretary in September, I made resolving the issues of the continued detention of British nationals and the IMS debt personal priorities. In my first week, I spoke to the families of the detainees and met my Iranian counterpart, Minister Amir-Abdollahian. This was the first in-person meeting of UK and Iranian Foreign Ministers in three years. We agreed to work together to resolve the two issues in parallel. I dispatched a team of Foreign Office negotiators to hold intensive discussions with senior Iranian officials, in order to secure the release of our detainees. Officials travelled to Tehran for negotiations in October and November. A final round of negotiations took place in Muscat in February, resulting in this agreement.

Our ambassador in Tehran, Simon Shercliff, has also been in constant talks with Iranian Ministers and senior officials. I spoke to Minister Amir-Abdollahian in October to progress the talks. In December, I met Minister Badr and secured Oman’s assistance in this important work. In February, I held discussions with Minister Amir-Abdollahian again, to drive the talks to a final conclusion. We will continue to push, with partners, to secure Morad’s permanent release and return home, which is long overdue. We will continue to support other British nationals in Iran who have asked for our help. We will work closely with our international partners to urge Iran to end its practice of unfair detention. It remains, and always has been, within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained. The agonies endured by Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and their families must never happen again.

Our efforts to settle the IMS debt have also reached their conclusion. After highly complex and exhaustive negotiations, the more than 40 year-old debt between International Military Services and the ministry of defence of Iran has now been settled. As the House is aware, this debt relates to contracts signed with the Iranian ministry of defence in the 1970s. Following the revolution of 1979, those contracts could not be fulfilled. I pushed officials to be as creative as possible in finding a way to resolve the situation, and they have worked round the clock to find a viable payment route. We have considered and exhausted many options in the process. I can tell the House that we have found a way to make the payment in full compliance with UK and international sanctions and with global counterterrorism financing and anti-money laundering regulations. A sum of £393.8 million has now been paid, which will be available only for humanitarian purposes. The terms remain confidential to both parties. We have long said that we would find a solution to the IMS debt. Now, thanks to the tireless work of our officials, we have found a way to do so.

The repayment of the debt, in parallel with the release of our nationals, reflects steps taken by both the UK and Iran to resolve issues of serious disagreement between our two countries. We will continue to stand up for our interests, for the freedom and security of our nationals wherever they are, and for an end to arbitrary detention. But for now, to Nazanin and Anoosheh, I am pleased that in just a few hours’ time we will be able to say: welcome home. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, everyone in this House will be incredibly relieved about the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori. It is incredibly heartening news, and I pay tribute to all Members of this House who have campaigned tirelessly on their behalf, and on behalf of their families. I also pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe, who worked so hard, including on hunger strike outside the FCO. I also pay tribute to their local MPs. It just shows how important constituency MPs can be. Tulip Siddiq and Janet Daby both worked tirelessly on behalf of their constituents.

Sadly, however, their release is long overdue and the Iranian Government’s use of their freedom as a political bargaining chip has been shameful. The years that Nazanin and Anoosheh have lost can never be recovered, and of course it is not only their years that have been lost. I think of Gabriella, Nazanin’s daughter, who has lost an incredibly important period of her childhood without her mother.

We should also use this moment to reflect on how we can avoid this situation being repeated. That must include looking inwards at the world of the Foreign Office and perhaps even at the real possibility that the Prime Minister’s incorrect comments may have worsened Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention. There is no doubt that mistakes were made which may have prevented her earlier release, but there are also positive lessons which can be learned from how her return was eventually secured. Ultimately, we must recognise that this release would not have been possible without the dedication and expertise of the FCDO’s staff. I hope that the Government will fully understand that and make a commitment to ensure that there are no further cuts to their number. I hope the Minister will make that commitment today.

To prevent a tragedy like this taking place again, the Government should also look outwards and ask how they can work with our international allies to strengthen international measures to combat the use of arbitrary detention and hostage diplomacy. The unfortunate truth is that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are not the only British nationals to have been arbitrarily detained by the Iranian regime, and Ministers should now seek the release of all other British nationals who have been unlawfully or arbitrarily detained. I hope that the Minister can update the House on work with our international allies to secure the release of other nationals in Iran.

I want to focus particularly on the detention of Morad Tahbaz, whose sister was on the radio this morning with Liz Truss. She made a moving comment that their family had been unable to take the public road in terms of media attention. I hope that, with the release of Nazanin and Anoosheh, we do not forget those who remain detained. I hope that the Minister can tell us more about the steps that the Government are taking, with the United States in particular, to support and ensure Mr Tahbaz’s release?

Today’s Statement represents the conclusion of a horrific experience for both Nazanin and Anoosheh, but for the many others who remain in Iran, it is also a glimmer of hope. The Government must use this moment to go further and help others to return home, but also to learn from the mistakes which meant that Nazanin and Anoosheh were not reunited with their families sooner.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for bringing us this extraordinarily welcome Statement and echo what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has just said. I also thank the Minister personally for his care in keeping me informed. I really appreciate his responsiveness on this, as on other matters.

I hope that noble Lords will excuse me leaving me after the opening statements. As the Minister knows, the time for this Statement changed, and I am responding for the Lib Dems in the International Women’s Day debate in the Moses Room and so should return to hear those speeches.

I am so delighted to join others in welcoming both Nazanin and Anoosheh back home. They and their families should never have been put in this terrible position, as political hostages. I first raised the case of Nazanin’s detention in February 2017 in your Lordships’ House. So much time has passed since then. I too pay tribute to Richard for his remarkable, quiet, determined, loving and constant pressure to seek his wife’s release and the reunion of his family. He was endlessly told, as was I, that work was going on behind the scenes and that he should stay silent. He did not—the world got to know about Nazanin, and the world welcomes her release.

I pay tribute too to Amnesty International and Redress, which have worked tirelessly to secure this result and continue to support others who have not received such prominence around the world. They do a remarkable job. I also think that Jeremy Hunt deserves credit for trying to take forward the hostages’ release and in particular for recognising that there was a debt that the courts had determined we owed to Iran. Of course, there is not the slightest justification for the holding of hostages by the Iranian state and we condemn that. I agree that we should not be seen as paying ransom, but we need to adhere to international law and I am glad that this has been resolved and will go towards humanitarian relief in Iran. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is also pleased, given her family ties there. I would like to know more about how this aid will be structured.

In this unstable world, it becomes ever more important that we adhere to a rules-based order. We see that with the terrible consequences in Ukraine right now. That is why it is urgent that we tackle Iran’s nuclear position. Although critics said that the JCPOA did not address all that everyone wished, it was a major milestone—a boulder in the door, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who helped to negotiate it, has said. It was appalling when President Trump pulled out, and it is vital that we put this back in place. Can the Minister update us? The best should not be the enemy of the good.

I have felt strongly for Nazanin over these last years as her daughter was growing up—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins—and as the years passed, with all the implications for her and her family. I am so impressed by Richard Ratcliffe’s statements about how there is no solace to be gained from looking back at those losses. Those losses are very real, but, as he puts it, “We live in the future”, and we must indeed. That is important for them. They will need time to recover, and I hope that they are given it.

What progress is being made on the case of Morad Tahbaz and the others held in Iran? Richard made sure that we never forget Nazanin. What of the others? Amnesty has been working publicly on Mehran Raoof’s case. Can the Minister clarify why the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that he does not want to be identified? I am informed otherwise. If he cannot answer now, please will he write to me. What advice do we give to other dual nationals seeking to visit their families in Iran? I met one recently who seemed unconcerned. Is he right?

What are we doing to ensure that there is concerted international action should future political hostages be taken in this way by states? In February 2021, the UK backed a Canada-led initiative against states’ practice of arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for diplomatic leverage, along with 55 like-minded allies. What proposals are coming out of this initiative, and will the Government review the cases of the British nationals held in this way so that we can learn from it and do our best to ensure that it does not happen again? In that context, the Government are now sanctioning many more people in relation to Russia. Are they looking at this in relation to the taking of political hostages?

What support are we giving to these two families who were caught up in a political storm unrelated to their own actions and who now need gently to be assisted and protected and led back into as normal an existence as is possible?

This result has probably come about partly because of the political tectonic plates shifting following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it is wonderful to have such positive and happy news this week against the background of atrocities elsewhere. Perhaps it was not chance that Nazanin was wearing yellow and blue, the colours of the oppressed in Ukraine.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in thanking everyone who has been involved in the many and several consular cases around the world, but particularly those in Iran.

I was in the other place when my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made her Statement, and it was a particularly poignant moment to see both Richard and Gabriella in the Gallery. I was glad I and other colleagues from both Houses were there to contemplate it; it was very much their moment, and it was necessary that they heard one Member of Parliament after another pay tribute to their tenacity and consistency and, as Tulip Siddiq summed it up, the really high threshold that Richard has set for all husbands—I am sure that I and others will be reminded of that in the months and years ahead.

I join in paying particular tribute to both Tulip Siddiq and Janet Daby. MPs, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, play an incredible role in being what they truly are: representatives of the people. Both honourable Members have shown exactly that in serving their constituents. The poignancy of the exchanges yesterday was very apparent and real emotion could be felt in the House of Commons Chamber.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. As Human Rights Minister at the Foreign Office, although not directly involved in Iran, I have followed this issue. Many initiatives were undertaken, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her efforts in this regard and to other noble Lords in the Chamber. I am delighted that we are joined by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has been a vociferous campaigner and, through his own insights and experiences, has brought great focus to the cases of those detainees in Iran, and I pay tribute to his efforts. In exchanges both within your Lordships’ House and outside it, as I have always said, all the Front Benches here enjoy strong relationships, and I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in that respect.

I have served now under four Foreign Secretaries. I join others in recognising the role of my right honourable friend the current Foreign Secretary in making this issue a priority on her appointment but also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, recognised, the important role played by my right honourable friend Jeremy Hunt during his tenure as Foreign Secretary— I remember him visiting Iran and visiting Gabriella directly when she was still in Tehran—and of course the continued role of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

Equally, I pay tribute to the British diplomats who have been looking at the many issues that one can talk about, and to our ambassador in Tehran, Simon Shercliff, who was consistently in touch, particularly in the last few moments. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover; even in those last few minutes when certain news was breaking, I was giving evidence to a committee at the time but was conscious that, once we had wheels up and airspace had been cleared, we could truly recognise that both Nazanin and Anoosheh were coming home. We saw the emotional reunion this morning, and I think the massive effort that has gone into that has been recognised.

I shall pick up on some of the specific questions—first, regarding other cases that I think are equally important. We were of course pleased to learn of the release from custody of Morad Tahbaz, who I think is now under house arrest after being detained in prison for four years. He was arrested in 2018 and I know my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been particularly seized of his case. Both noble Lords asked about other cases too. There is a point to be made here: it remains in Iran’s gift to release any British nationals who have been detained. I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said about a particular case, and I will take that back and write to her as appropriate. However, I assure all noble Lords that we continue to work on these cases.

The change of Administration in Iran brought a new opportunity. Again, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary very much seized the moment through her direct interventions and diplomacy with key members. I add Her Majesty’s Government’s thanks for the important role played in this respect by Oman. My right honourable friend met Oman’s Foreign Minister Badr, and Oman provided the plane that landed in Muscat from Tehran.

This has been a big effort, but equally it should be very much seen as only the beginning. On Richard’s resolute determination, as I have said in answer to previous questions, when he had his vigil outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office I specifically went over and said to him that, while the answers from the Foreign Office might not have been what he expected or wanted, there were people in that building who were very much focused on his priority, which was getting the release and reunification with his family, and we all recognise and celebrate that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked about the JCPOA nuclear talks. The issues are not linked, but we are very much at the end of the talks to restore the JCPOA. We are urging all parties to focus now on rapidly concluding the deal. On the table is a fair and comprehensive deal that has been achieved, which would reverse Iran’s nuclear programme, return it to its strict JCPOA limits and restore extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are very much focused on hoping that all parties will ensure that that happens.

On the IMS debt, which has come up repeatedly, the Government accepted that it was a legal debt that was owed and committed to paying it, and that has now been done; the sum of £393.8 million has been paid. As the Foreign Secretary said, the specifics of the deal remain confidential to both parties, but I assure noble Lords that the payment was made in full compliance with UK and international sanctions as well as global counterterrorist financing and anti-money laundering regulations. The debt is very much focused, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, recognised, on humanitarian support and priorities.

I hope that, as we recognise this important step forward in Iran’s ability to return detainees, it will act, as I have said, as the important first step in the return of all people currently detained in Iran and, in doing so, strengthen and build our relationship. As the noble Baroness and the noble Lord recognised, events gripping us today reflect the importance of working together and ensuring that we can pursue the ultimate goal that we all desire: the peaceful settlement of conflicts and the return and reunification of families of detainees, wherever they may be held in the world.

My Lords, at a time when the world news is almost always bleak, it is good to have good news today. I think we all felt very cheered when we saw on our television screens yesterday and this morning the release of Nazanin and the other person. This marks an important point. I do not want to be churlish, but in future we may still learn the significance of the part the Prime Minister played when he was Foreign Secretary; some of us felt that some of his comments were a bit unfortunate.

The Statement says that the Foreign Secretary dispatched an elite team of Foreign Office negotiators. I assume that they are always elite; if they are not then you are sending your second team, so that is a slightly odd phrase.

I pay tribute to the Members of Parliament who have worked so hard and with such determination, and above all to Richard Ratcliffe. I have met him several times, including when he was on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office. He did everything possible to show determination, resolution, insight and a very balanced and sensible approach. Goodness me, the Foreign Office could use more people like him; he has played such an important part.

I am puzzled by something. As I say, I do not want to break up the sense of harmony, but the Statement says that the money, nearly £400 million, will be,

“available only for humanitarian purposes.”

It was always clear that that was the only basis on which the money could be returned. However, the Statement also says:

“The terms remain confidential to both parties.”

I am a bit puzzled by that because all along many of us were saying that, when that money is repaid, it would be the key to the release of Nazanin and the others. We were always told by the Government that we should not make any connection between the two. I am rather puzzled by that and particularly as to why we should not know the terms. I can think of only one reason, which is that there may be other people whose release might be prejudiced by releasing those terms. Otherwise, I do not see why we should not know. All along, we felt that the delay in getting these people released was because we had not paid up the money that we promised to pay many years ago. Why can we not know the details? By the way, I am thankful for the nice comments that the Minister made about me.

My Lords, I reiterate the points that I have made. I am grateful to the noble Lord and recognise his important role in relation to these consular cases and the detainees issue in Iran. He mentioned in relation to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe the role of Richard Ratcliffe, as I have acknowledged, in ensuring that her issue very much seized the minds of those in Parliament here in the UK. It was also an issue that was kept on the front burner. I remember my meetings with Richard, including during his hunger week at the United Nations in New York—his efforts were not just here in London; he was also active internationally. I have already alluded to some of the other detainees.

I have already said that we acknowledged the existence of the IMS debt. This was a complex negotiation. As regards the point made about elite diplomats, the noble Lord is quite right. We want the best of the best in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Their efforts and professionalism are testimony to the two parallel issues—the release of the detainees and the vehicle that allowed for the payment of the IMS debt.

The noble Lord asked specifically about the reasoning behind the terms. The terms remain confidential to both parties and that was part of the agreement. However, I have sought to reassure your Lordships’ House that the payment has been made in full compliance with our international obligations and regulations—those concerning international sanctions, counterterrorism financing and anti-money laundering regulations.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the phrase “elite British diplomats” is a tautology. Today’s good news is the product of many years’ work by many people. I congratulate the Government, the team led by the Foreign Secretary in London and Simon Shercliff in the field, as well as their predecessors. As the Minister has done, I single out Jeremy Hunt in London and Rob Macaire in Tehran.

As the world celebrates the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori the Foreign Office will be turning to lessons learnt. Can I seek reassurance from the Minister on two points? First, although Richard Ratcliffe’s campaign was brilliantly successful, maximum publicity will not always be the most effective way in which to help people in trouble. Secondly, the Foreign Office should help those who choose not to publicise their case just as much as those who are in the light of the media.

My Lords, these negotiations were carried out over many years and there were high points and low points. I also recognise the important role that the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, played in several years of exemplary leadership at the former FCO in ensuring that diplomatic engagement on this issue was sustained and maintained at the highest level. The noble Lord’s comments as regards the publicity were correct in some instances, as we saw in Richard’s campaign. He felt that that was right and one cannot imagine for a moment until one is in that situation what steps one would take. He certainly was determined. Tulip described him as an accountant who did not really seek the limelight but suddenly found himself thrust in front of the world’s cameras. He showed that he was determined to do what was necessary.

I also totally acknowledge what the noble Lord said about the many consular cases that we deal with involving detainees around the world in which the families specifically ask that the details of the case and the name of the detainee is kept confidential but, at the same time, request discreet and quiet diplomacy. I can assure noble Lords that the issue of quiet and discreet diplomacy is a very effective British tool in unlocking difficult cases.

My Lords, it is easy to be joyful on this occasion because it is the outcome for which so many people have been working for so long. It is obviously the outcome to be desired. We should also realise and recollect that there are those who do not share the same joyful outcome, and I hope that their detention will not be longer delayed.

I should like to pay particular acceptance and recognition of the efforts of Richard Ratcliffe. I know that, on occasion, they have not been consistent with the attitude of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but they reflect the kind of commitment and loyalty that is necessary in circumstances of the kind that we are discussing. It is also right to pay compliments to the two Members of Parliament because, for them, there was a particular responsibility and perhaps they found themselves operating in an area with which they were not always familiar.

It has been said that lessons must be learnt. It took a long time for this joyful outcome to happen. It was not helped by the clumsy intervention of the Prime Minister, and I very much hope that in taking account of the way in which this matter has turned out the Foreign Office will have regard to the fact that perhaps other approaches might have been more successful earlier. I suspect that we will never really know what caused this outcome to be achieved. Parts of it are not to be publicised, as we have been told. We will never know precisely what the thinking was in the upper echelons of the Iranian Government, but it is certainly the case that it took longer than we might have expected and that is an issue upon which the Foreign Office would be well advised to give consideration.

My Lords, regarding the remarks that the noble Lord made about both Members of Parliament, I have already recognised in my responses to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the incredible roles played by the MPs. I know one of them but perhaps not the other. However, I speak for every Member of Parliament when I say that I am sure they would say that they were doing their job.

As regards the lessons learnt and so on, in every experience and area of work in whichever department and government—indeed, throughout society—there are always things that experience teaches one and provide insight into how one can deal with a situation more effectively. There are always ways in which to improve the response of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office.

In terms of focus, as the noble Lord acknowledged, others are still detained. Morad Tahbaz has been specifically mentioned. Let me assure the noble Lord that we are working to secure Morad’s return to the United Kingdom. He has three nationalities—Iranian, British and American, as the noble Lord will be aware. There are also others and we are supporting all British nationals in Iran who have requested our help. We, alongside our allies, are urging Iran to end its practice of unfair detention. In our diplomatic push to ensure that all parties are very much on board, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been very much at the forefront of this release.

After this splendid news today, I ask the Minister about his mention of our getting very close, together with the United States and other countries, to being able to sign an agreement with Iran. I think every country in the Middle East is strongly concerned about the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, in any form whatever. Can my noble friend reassure us that, in practice, he thinks the controls that will be in this agreement, when it comes, will unquestionably make certain that Iran will not get its hands on nuclear weapons?

My Lords, as my noble friend acknowledged, I have already mentioned the discussions going on with regard to the JCPOA. As many noble Lords have acknowledged, and as I have acknowledged myself, it is not an ideal agreement, but it has been sustained and retained, and it is important that all parties work for its restoration according to the criteria laid out, particularly about reversing Iran’s nuclear programme and allowing for effective and regular international monitoring for the very reasons my noble friend articulates—to prevent Iran developing or owning a nuclear weapon.

Iran’s nuclear programme should be for the purpose that it seeks, as many do, peaceful means of securing alternative sources of energy. The issue of Iran’s nuclear programme is very important. We are, of course, aware of the concerns, but I say to my noble friend that it is for those very reasons that it is important that we seek to restore the JCPOA, with the measures and conditionality it brings. At this juncture, it is important that all parties take a long, hard look at the agreement on the table. One hopes we can return to this agreement, with all necessary checks and balances in place, at the earliest opportunity.