PM insists government doing 'everything we can' to help Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

3 May 2021, 16:25 | Updated: 3 May 2021, 23:23

Boris Johnson has previously faced criticism for his handling of discussions with Iran over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Boris Johnson has previously faced criticism for his handling of discussions with Iran over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

Boris Johnson has insisted the UK Government is doing "everything we can" to help Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother who has been imprisoned repeatedly in Iran over the past five years.

The comments follow reports on Iranian state TV on Sunday that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be freed after the UK agreed to pay £400 million to settle a historic debt with the Islamic Republic.

But the reports have been downplayed by UK officials and the Ratcliffe family, who said they "haven't heard anything".

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On Monday evening, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said reports that Britain would pay the debt were "not yet accurate".

He told a Downing Street press conference: "It's incumbent on Iran unconditionally to release those who are held arbitrarily and, in our view, unlawfully, and the reports I'm afraid are not yet accurate in terms of the suggestion of her (Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's) imminent release."

Speaking during a campaign trip, the PM said the debts and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's freedom were "two entirely seperate issues".

"We of course make sure that we do everything we can to look after the interests of Nazanin and all the very difficult dual national cases we have in Tehran," he added.

Nazanin's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and daughter, Gabriella, have campaigned for years for the British-Iranian national's release.
Nazanin's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and daughter, Gabriella, have campaigned for years for the British-Iranian national's release. Picture: PA

The £400 million debt relates to the non-delivery of 1,500 tanks ordered from Britain by the Shah of Iran before he was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The UK kept the cash despite British courts accepting that it should be repaid.

In September 2020, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wrote to lawyers acting for Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, acknowledging for the first time that there was a debt to be payed and adding the government were exploring "every legal avenue" to pay it.

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The prime minister has previously been criticised for comments he made while foreign secretary that may have led to an increase in the length of the British-Iranian national's sentence.

On Wednesday, Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, who is the constancy MP of the family, said she had seen "no evidence" from Mr Johnson on securing the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, accusing him of a "dismal failure".

"He still hasn't got his government to pay the £400m debt that we as a country owe Iran," she added. "We cannot deny the fact that Nazanin was handed a fresh new sentence a week after the IMF's debt court hearing was delayed.”

However, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said ongoing legal negotiations between Tehran and London should be kept separate from the "arbitrary detention" of prisoners there.

"We have always said that British dual nationals should not be used as political leverage," Mr Cleverly told Sky News.

"We have also seen a number of occasions where the Iranian regime have used disinformation, we're hearing inaccurate reports coming out over the last couple of days.

"On the one hand, they are saying that these proceedings are legitimate. We don't agree with that at all, but then also saying that they are linked to this legal dispute - it can't be both.

"We're making it very, very clear. It is in the hands of the Tehran regime to release these people and they should be released."

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Last week, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to another year in prison in Iran, on top of a five-year sentence she already served in the Islamic Republic.

While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family with her daughter.

She was convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran's government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny.

Despite the Foreign Office denials of a deal being reached this weekend, the imprisoned mother's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, described the reports as positive development.

"It's probably a good sign that it's being signalled, just as last week's sentence was a bad sign. But it feels part of the negotiations rather than the end of them."