On 2 December, the House of Lords is due to debate the motion to be moved by Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour) that “this House takes note of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the case for further action by Her Majesty’s Government to secure her release”.

Detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

In April 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, was arrested and detained in Iran when she attempted to return to the UK following a holiday in the country. In September 2016, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison for “plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic”, charges which she denies.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s young daughter, who was with her at the time of her arrest, was returned to her family in Tehran but her passport was taken by Iranian authorities. She returned to the UK in 2019 to start school.

The UK Government believes the charges against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her imprisonment are arbitrary. United Nations human rights special rapporteurs have also said that they consider that “Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been arbitrarily deprived of her liberty and that her right to a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal has been violated”.

In March 2020, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was moved from prison to house arrest at her parents’ house in Tehran because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2021, her house arrest ended but her passport was not returned and new charges, of spreading propaganda, were brought against her. In April 2021, she was convicted of “propaganda activities” against Iran because she participated in a protest outside the Iranian embassy in London in 2009 and because she gave an interview to BBC Persia. She was sentenced to another year in prison, followed by a year-long travel ban, to last until 2023. She has so far been permitted to remain at her parents’ house in Tehran. In October 2021, she lost an appeal against her second sentence and may be returned to jail.

What the Government has done

The Government has stated that “at every stage since Nazanin was detained, the UK Government have carefully considered and assiduously pursued the courses of action that we have assessed offer the best opportunity for resolving this case”. Government ministers and officials raise the issue “with Iranian interlocutors at every opportunity”. On 16 October 2021, the Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, said that “we are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home to her young daughter and family and I will continue to press Iran on this point”.

In March 2019, the then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, granted diplomatic status to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This raised the issue of her detention from a consular issue to a state-to-state issue. Referring to this move, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly said:

At that time, [Mr Hunt] also recognised that that was unlikely to yield immediate results, in part because Iran does not recognise dual national status. Unfortunately, his prediction at the time seems to have been proven right.

Ministers have emphasised the continued detention in Iran of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals is due to the actions of the Iranian Government, and her release is the responsibility of that Government. In a debate in the House of Commons on 16 November 2021, Mr Cleverly said:

I remind all Members that it was the Iranian Government who arrested these British dual nationals. It was the Iranian Government who applied these bogus charges against them. It was the Iranian Government who hold these people in incarceration and prevent them from coming home. It is the Iranian Government who are wholly and solely responsible for the appalling circumstances that these people find themselves in. The British Government will continue to work tirelessly to secure their release and return home.

Campaign for release

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has campaigned for the release of his wife. In October 2021 Mr Ratcliffe started a 21-day hunger strike outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to provoke further efforts from the UK Government to secure her freedom. He was quoted as saying “the reason I’m camped here is that Nazanin has been held for five and a half years, the British government has not done nearly enough and I have lost all faith in their approach”. In 2019, Mr Ratcliffe went on hunger strike in front of the Iranian embassy. He said this helped secure the return of his daughter to the UK.

Mr Ratcliffe has stated that he believes his wife will not be released until the UK pays a debt it owes to Iran relating to a military equipment deal from the 1970s.

Mr Ratcliffe’s MP, Tulip Siddiq (Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn) has advocated on behalf of the family and has secured many parliamentary debates on the case. She has criticised the Government, arguing that it has not done enough to secure the return of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. In response to a question concerning citizens of other countries who have been released from detention, Ms Siddiq said:

That is the frustration that Nazanin expresses every time I speak to her: that her Government are not doing enough for her as a British citizen. The people she was in jail with are going home, while she is still stuck there, missing out on her daughter’s childhood.

Ms Siddiq has also stated her view that the payment of the UK’s debt to Iran is linked to the Iranian Government’s decision to continue to detain Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe:

When Nazanin was captured and put in solitary confinement in Evin prison, she was told by prison guards that the reason she was being held was because of our failure to pay this historic debt. Former President Rouhani told our Prime Minister in March this year that accelerating the payment on the debt would solve a lot of the problems in the bilateral relationship between Iran and our country. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Zarif also cited the debt in an article. There is no question but that the debt is linked to Nazanin’s case.

Mr Ratcliffe and Ms Siddiq have called for the Government to pay the debt to Iran, as they believe this will remove an obstacle to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

Debt of UK government-owned company to Iran

The UK’s debt to Iran relates to a dispute over contracts for defence equipment which were cancelled following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. At that time, International Military Services Ltd (IMS), a company wholly owned by the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, had contracts to supply the Iranian Government with defence equipment and services. After the change of the regime in Iran those contracts were terminated, resulting in a number of legal disputes. While international arbitration confirmed that IMS owed money to the Iranian Government, disputes are ongoing relating to other matters connected to the case.

The High Court in England is due to hear a case on a matter related to the dispute. A hearing set for April 2021 was adjourned at the request of the Iranian Government, the claimant. A new date has not been set. Tulip Siddiq was told that the matter of the UK’s debt to Iran was sub judice and could not be raised in Parliament because of this outstanding case. However, at the beginning of the House of Commons Westminster Hall debate on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe on 16 November 2021, the chair, Sir Charles Walker, said that the matter could be discussed because of its importance:

I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings in the High Court between International Military Services Ltd and Iran’s Ministry of Defence. I am exercising the discretion given to the chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings as they concern issues of national importance.

The UK Government accepts the debt is due to Iran. However, it maintains that it is “unhelpful” to link the debt to the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and that the UK should not allow dual nationals to be used as “diplomatic leverage”. Following talks with UK officials in November 2021, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, said that while payment of the debt would influence relations between the two countries, it is a separate issue from the detention of British-Iranian dual nationals.

The Government has stated in the past that it could not pay the debt while many Iranian government entities are the subject of sanctions imposed on them because of the country’s nuclear weapons activity and human rights concerns. Before leaving the European Union (EU), the UK was bound by the EU’s sanctions regime. Following Brexit, the UK passed its own legislation to replace the EU’s sanctions regime concerning Iran. According to Alexandra Fowler, lecturer in international law at Westminster University, the Government could not repay the debt without contravening this legislation because the entity to which the Government owes money is proscribed under these rules.

It has also been suggested that US sanctions against Iran are a barrier to paying the debt. Under these rules, the US can impose penalties on non-US entities that deal with certain Iranian bodies, including the Central Bank of Iran and many other Iranian banks. Therefore, a UK bank involved in transferring funds to Iran risks US penalties. However, when asked in a May 2021 interview whether the US would stand in the way of the UK making a payment to Iran, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that this was a “sovereign decision for the United Kingdom”.

In an evidence session of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, chair of the Health Committee and former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson if it would be possible to avoid using banks to transfer the money. He asked if the UK could “do what President Obama did in January 2016, and fly over a crate of cash to Tehran and just repay that debt”. This was in reference to money the US Government paid to Iran as part of a settlement to resolve claims that also related to a failed arms deal during the time of the Shah. The Prime Minister responded that this approach was “worth considering” but that “there are complexities attached”.

Cover image by Sina Drakhshani from Unsplash.