My Lords, for five and a half years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Iran, often in isolation and separated from her baby daughter, robbing her of motherhood and Gabriella of her childhood. Like many noble Lords, I visited Richard Ratcliffe, her husband, outside the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office during his recent hunger strike. No one can fail to admire his determination and incredible resolve in his campaign to seek the release of his wife.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be at the Magnitsky awards in Westminster Central Hall when I saw that same resolve in a young person. All those present witnessed the deeply moving part of the ceremony when Nazanin’s daughter Gabriella accepted the award for Courage Under Fire on behalf of her mother. Gabriella was just 22 months old when her mother, a project co-ordinator for the Thomson Reuters Foundation was arrested in April 2016 at Tehran Airport, just as they were travelling back to the UK. Iran claimed that she was a spy and, in September 2016, she was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
“represents formal recognition by the British Government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates it to a formal State to State issue.”
Nazanin is the first British national to be granted diplomatic protection since 1951, so can the Minister tell us how the Government have treated her case differently from other consular cases? Under Theresa May’s premiership, at least six trips were undertaken by five different Ministers to solve Nazanin’s case. Why has no Minister been sent to Iran for this purpose under Boris Johnson’s premiership, despite the assertion of diplomatic protection? Nazanin’s status of diplomatic protection means that her ongoing torture is an injury to the United Kingdom itself. What are the Government doing to exercise diplomatic protection for Nazanin and to challenge the fact that she has been tortured?
It is now well over 2,000 days since Nazanin was first detained. This is an unimaginable ordeal for her and her family. Recent talks between the Government and the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister did not result in any progress. Nor has there been progress in the cases of other British nationals, including Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. Both men are not in good health. Like Nazanin, they are being arbitrarily detained on spurious, fabricated charges. Anoosheh Ashoori has not been allowed out of prison. His family applied for diplomatic protection for him in April 2021. What consideration has been given to this request? What was the outcome? Morad Tahbaz was one of eight conservationists held by the Iranian authorities. Amnesty International has said that there was evidence that those eight had been tortured to obtain false confessions.
During the last debate on the detention of British nationals, noble Lords across the House raised the debt of £400 million which Britain owes Iran. The money was paid by Iran to the United Kingdom more than 40 years ago for 1,500 Chieftain tanks, which were never delivered. The Government have said that bank transfer transactions are not possible because of restrictions but, as we all know, if the Government had the will to settle the debt, one way or another, the payment would be made.
No one is suggesting that our Government should pay any sort of ransom. If the money is owed—and there is no question but that that is the case—the debt should be settled. When the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he made a promise to Richard Ratcliffe that the debt would be paid. Significantly, in 2014, the current Defence Secretary described the unpaid debt as “a sorry story”. He said that the whole issue had been,
“marred by double dealing and obfuscation.”—[
More recently, a number of distinguished former Foreign Secretaries—Conservative and Labour—have said that the debt should be paid. That is also the view of many international and legal commentators and it is the view of the Opposition as well. Jeremy Hunt, a former Foreign Secretary, said that it was not about paying a ransom; it was about the UK’s credibility and doing what is right.
In our last debate on this subject on
“it is not helpful in any way to connect wider bilateral issues with those arbitrarily detained in Iran.”—[
Does the Minister acknowledge that Nazanin and her family have been told on numerous occasions that payment of the £400 million IMS debt is key to her release? I hope he will respond to this.
On numerous occasions, we have been told by the Government, including the Minister, that they are doing their best, but, for more than five years, British Governments have tried and failed to secure the release of Nazanin and the other British nationals. If there was a government strategy during this time, it has clearly failed. Richard Ratcliffe puts it in a slightly different way, describing the Government’s policy as a “policy of waiting”. Now is surely the time to be vigorous and determined. Nazanin, Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and all the British nationals—that is what they are—need to be brought back home. The time for discreet pressure and cautious words is long past.
I suspect that the question that is in the minds of most noble Lords today is: how is it that, in recent years, countries such as the United States, Australia, France and Germany have all successfully negotiated the release of their citizens arbitrarily detained in Iran? Perhaps the noble Lord can tell us what those countries have been doing right and what we have been doing wrong. All noble Lords want to hear from the Minister today that the Government have a strategy and a plan of action for bringing our people home.
I conclude with questions on what actions might be part of that plan. How will the Government use the political will behind the Canada-led Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which they joined in February this year, to challenge Iran’s systematic hostage-taking? Will the Government acknowledge that Nazanin and other British nationals arbitrarily detained in Iran, including Anoosheh Ashoori, are hostages in accordance with the Taking of Hostages Act 1982? Will the Government commit to finding international solutions to Iran’s systematic hostage-taking at the upcoming democracy summit, initiated by President Biden, on 9 and
The Free Nazanin campaign submitted an evidence file identifying 10 perpetrators of Iran’s hostage-taking, requesting that they be subjected to asset freezes and travel bans, using the Magnitsky sanctions. I know how the Minister will reply: he will resist any questions on planned designations. But I hope today he will confirm that Magnitsky sanctions will form part of the plan of action.
I look forward to hearing not only the Minister’s response but the contributions of all noble Lords across the House this afternoon. In particular, I welcome the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, and I look forward to hearing her contribution. I beg to move.
My Lords, I express gratitude to my noble friend Lord Collins for initiating the debate and laying out the arguments so clearly. Really, all we need is the Minister’s response to his speech, but the rest of us are here in support. I was talking to a Member of this House who has spoken on this subject on previous occasions but said that he was not disposed to speak again today. I said that I wanted to speak again today to show support for Richard Ratcliffe and Nazanin. We need to show that support.
When we had our debate on this recently, I said to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that we would keep on going—what other choice do we have? We feel that this is an abuse of human rights and the rights of the family, and that what has happened to Nazanin is totally illegal. We will just keep going. If that sounds repetitive, it is, because we have no other choice—what else can we do? If the Minister could suggest some other course of action to us, we would take it.
I will repeat one or two of the questions that my noble friend put in his opening speech. How is it that the United States has got its nationals released, as have Australia, France and Germany? What have they done that we cannot? What have they conceded? Have they done something that is wrong in principle? They have managed to get their nationals out; surely to goodness we should be looking at what they have done and at why we cannot do the same.
Many of us went to see Richard Ratcliffe when he was on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office. He is a brave man; he is committed; he is principled; he understands the issues—he has a better understanding of the politics of what is going on than most of us, I dare say. His level of commitment and faith that he will eventually get his wife back here is evident. It takes a lot of tenacity for an individual to keep going like that. He stayed on hunger strike a long time; he was very hungry and cold. Someone said he should stop, for the sake of his wife and daughter, because his health could be in danger. Some of his family are doctors and said the same thing, so I am glad that he stopped. But what an effort of principle it was on his part. Perhaps some of us should have joined him on his hunger strike—although that may have been asking too much of parliamentary colleagues. Richard certainly set an example of tenacity of purpose.
Jeremy Hunt, as Foreign Secretary, and the Defence Secretary both said that the money that we owed was not ransom, and an international court supported that. I do not understand two of the comments made by Ministers in earlier debates: that the issue of the money was complicated and that raising it was unhelpful. Will the Minister say what is meant by “complicated” and “unhelpful”? It is a straightforward commitment. The Prime Minister, when he was Foreign Secretary, said that we owed the money; everyone else says that we owe the money. What is unhelpful about saying that we as a country have a debt and we pay our debts? That is our principle. We support the rule of law. It is precisely because the Iranians are not supporting the rule of law that this terrible situation has arisen, and those of the other British nationals held there.
What, therefore, is complicated and unhelpful about raising this issue? If the £400 million is not a ransom, and the present Prime Minister promised that the debt would be paid, what is happening? Why cannot that debt be paid? Everyone who was at the hunger strike supporting Richard asked why the ransom was not being paid. Nobody can understand it. Somewhere in the depths of the Foreign Office there may be some explanation of it, but we have not heard it at all.
The Government used the status of diplomatic protection to try to give Nazanin some help. I wonder how we have used that diplomatic protection. When she was back in court recently and got a further sentence, the British Embassy, as I understand it, did not go to the court to support her. On another recent occasion, officials from the German Embassy went to the court. They were not allowed in to the trial of one of their nationals but they had a chance to talk to the judge—that surely was at least something. Why is our embassy not willing to go there and be supportive? When her daughter, Gabriella, sent presents, no embassy official delivered them—an embassy driver took them to where she was under house arrest. I do not understand why we are being so shabby. Why are we not doing more? Why are we not up front in our support for this wronged woman who has been treated so appallingly badly?
In February, I think, Canada led an initiative, which we backed, against the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals. What are our Government doing about that? If ever there was a case of arbitrary detention of foreign nationals, it is the British nationals in Iran, including Nazanin. Did not Dominic Raab, when he was Foreign Secretary, acknowledge that she was being tortured—that the way in which she was being detained was tantamount to torture? Torture is surely one of the worst things. Every international convention is against torture; as a Government we are totally against it. It is appalling and abhorrent. Why are we not saying more about that?
Lastly, in terms of action, my noble friend talked about Magnitsky sanctions. We have to do something. If the Government are not willing to act, we have to do something, and Magnitsky sanctions at least offer some way forward.
May I put a question to the Minister that I have asked him before? I believe that there is something else going on. I do not know what it is but there is some reason, in the depths of the Foreign Office, why we cannot move and pay the money. There is something holding us back. We cannot be afraid of US sanctions, because the Americans have breached their own sanctions, so what are we afraid of? What are we apprehensive about? How will our status in the world be undermined? Surely to goodness, we are entitled to know what the argument is. The Minister can play a very dead bat; he has a wide respect in the House for the person he is, and I know he is trying to be helpful. I do not blame him for this, but he is the only person we can shout at here, so I am shouting at him. There is some reason why this is not moving forward, and I would dearly like to know what it is. One day, in 30 years’ time, when the books are open, we will find out, but we would like to know now why this is not happening. I urge the Government to move quickly for the sake of a decent woman, a little girl and a husband who has been battling for her release.
My Lords, I was introduced to the House barely a month ago, having recently taken up my post as Bishop of Chelmsford, that vast and wonderful diocese that covers the whole of Essex and east London. It is a privilege to serve this diocese, which is complex, diverse and full of opportunities and challenges. Today, I thank everyone here who has offered me the warmest of welcomes. I am immensely grateful, in particular, for the help and support that I have received from staff and officials.
I have a deep and personal interest in the subject of this debate. Not only have I met Richard Ratcliffe and followed the story of Nazanin over the years, but I myself originally come from Iran. Born and brought up there, I left as a teenager during the Islamic Revolution, following difficult and traumatic circumstances. I was born into a Christian household, my father having been a convert from Islam to Christianity, in a small village in the centre of Iran. We were part of the tiny Anglican Church in Iran, which, when I was growing up in the 1970s, was made up primarily of converts and second- and third-generation Christians.
Our small community was hit hard when the revolution ushered in a period of unrest and chaos, and the church experienced a season of intense persecution. Properties were confiscated, financial assets were frozen and one of our clergy was murdered in his study. My father, who was by then bishop of the church, was briefly imprisoned before an attack on his life, which he survived but in which my mother was injured. In May 1980, my 24 year-old brother had his car ambushed on his way home from work. Two men got in next to him, and after a brief conversation witnessed by passers-by, he was shot in the head and died instantly. No arrests were ever made, no court case was followed and no explanation was offered for his murder. It was soon after this that I found myself in this country, originally with refugee status and eventually as a British citizen.
I have experienced first-hand the sting of injustice—injustice born of being caught up in events that are bigger than we are and in the face of which we are powerless. I remember well the chilling experience of a hand hovering over my father’s as he went to pick up the phone while our home was being raided by the authorities. It was a hand that prevented him calling for assistance as he helplessly watched the house being ransacked and his belongings destroyed. None of this, however, has left me bitter or with ill will towards my homeland or my countryfolk—far from it. I retain a deep love for Iran and her people, and a desire to work for reconciliation with those of other faiths and across all the divides that we create as human beings.
All of this brings me to today’s debate and to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her husband Richard, and their daughter and wider family. Resolving this situation, this great injustice, to reunite a family who are innocent pawns in power struggles that have nothing to do with them requires the best of both civilisations involved—Persian and British. Iran is a land with a rich culture. It has produced some of the greatest poets, architects, artists and scientists over its long and distinguished history. At the time of King Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire arguably gave birth to the notion of religious tolerance. Cyrus was King of Persia in the sixth century BCE. Having conquered Babylon and liberated the Jews from captivity, he decreed that the Temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt, so that any Jews choosing to return could worship freely. Cyrus modelled a way for people of difference to live alongside one another in peace, and the Cyrus cylinder or charter still stands today as a testament to this ideal in the British Museum.
British civilisation is also built on principles of compassion, tolerance and justice. These are thoroughly British values from which I and many other refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers have benefited over the years. But, at their heart, compassion, justice and tolerance are more than words. To have their fullest meaning, they must be lived—demonstrated in deed as well as word. In the case of Nazanin, we must see these principles enacted now. We need meaningful action, which demands that both countries involved draw on the best of their traditions.
The British Government have acknowledged that this country owes a debt to Iran that is now 40 years overdue. As has already been said, this is not ransom money; it is a long-standing obligation. The payment of this debt would demonstrate something crucial about how Britain chooses to play her part in the world, with integrity and decency, honesty and trust- worthiness. If Britain fulfils her obligations, Iran too must act from the best of her traditions, which exemplify beauty, honour, truth and respect.
Finally, Nazanin and other British-Persian dual nationals, among them Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz, are embroiled in a great injustice not of their own making, in the face of which they are utterly powerless. There are, however, powers at play that can effect change and right this terrible wrong. I urge the Minister to use what authority he has to help unlock this intractable situation by paying the debt owed, so that we
“let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on her excellent maiden speech and to welcome her to this House. She brings an extraordinary array of talents, including, I am pleased to see, academic and musical distinction, and a unique set of experiences as a member of a persecuted church in Iran. We heard how she suffered huge family trauma at the time of the Iranian revolution, arrived in the UK as a refugee and then built a life of service in the Church here. As I am sure noble Lords agree, we will learn a lot from her contributions, and it is a privilege to follow her in today’s debate.
I start by paying tribute to Nazanin’s husband Richard. I have never met Richard, but I have learned a lot about tenacity, courage, honesty and devotion from watching him fight for the release of his wife—his daughter Gabriella’s mum. I send my very best wishes, as I am sure other noble Lords do, to Richard and Gabriella today.
I want to ask the Minister about one issue, which is that raised by all former speakers, of the debt of approximately £400 million. I realise this is sensitive, given the other things going on, but we know that this debt stems from a weapons deal with the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s, for which Iran paid £600 million and received only a fraction of the vehicles ordered. The culture of secrecy around this issue is extraordinary. To some extent, it is understandable but, beyond that, it is extraordinary.
We do know a number of things about this, however. First, the FCDO has been told on numerous occasions by Iran that the settlement of this debt is vital for securing the release of Nazanin. Secondly, in the course of 20 years of arbitration in the Hague, the UK lost both a claim against it by Iran for payment and its own counterclaim launched in 1996. It also lost a final appeal against these rulings in 2009. This debt is therefore clearly owed by us to Iran, and the law requires it to be paid, whatever our private views on the issue might be. Thirdly, as my noble friend Lord Collins eloquently set out, we know of many former Foreign Secretaries’ views, and we know in particular that Jeremy Hunt came to the view that this money was not an illegitimate demand or an attempt at extortion but an unpaid debt. Fourthly, we know that in September 2020, the UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace wrote to Richard Ratcliffe to say that the Government officially acknowledge that this is a debt that must be paid.
This is what we know. Beyond this, the Government tell us—and, more importantly, have told Richard Ratcliffe and his family and supporters—precious little. So, my main question for the Minister is: can he explain give us a very simple reason why this debt has not been paid? Jeremy Hunt said recently that the reason for holding back payment is now about practicalities, not principle. Can the Minister confirm that is true? If it is because of practicalities, could he explain which practicalities are most relevant? Is it because the Iranian Government were made a sanctioned entity in 2008 under EU law, for example? Though, of course, since Brexit, we have famously taken back control of our own sanctions policy. Irrespective of that, since 2008, a UK court has ruled that the debt should be paid, and Iran has asked for it to be repaid via the central bank of Iran, which is not a sanctioned entity. I understand that the UK has never formally responded to that request; can the Minister say why? Perhaps the practicality is that any UK bank involved in any financial transfer would be subject to US Treasury secondary sanctions, which would be a legitimately serious obstacle. Is that the practicality blocking resolution?
Or is it a more straightforward explanation—that UK Ministers just cannot abide the idea of handing over such a substantial sum to an Iranian Government, given their appalling domestic human rights records, their involvement in atrocities abroad and the complexity of issues around the JCPOA, for example? As my noble friends Lord Collins and Lord Dubs said, other countries have successfully negotiated release. Similarly, various imaginative ideas have been proposed for circumventing some of the practical problems in the repayment of our debt—paying the debt in kind through medicines, for example, or insisting on explicit Iranian undertaking to use the money for certain agreed purposes. The Government have not engaged—or publicly acknowledged that they are privately engaged—with these ideas. Why not?
One response to this may be that we should not discuss this at all, as it will disturb the sensitivities around negotiations and disrupt the plan. But the problem is that those closest to this issue, the family and supporters of Nazanin, no longer believe there is any plan at all. That is the most concerning thing—that after so much unjustified suffering, the family of Nazanin not only do not know what the strategy is to end her detention but do not believe that there is anything resembling one. That is why Richard Ratcliffe said during his recent hunger strike of the current Government’s approach to his wife’s release:
“The policy is one of managed waiting, waiting for Iran to do the right thing, for a diplomatic solution. There is no strategy to get Naz home, which I said very bluntly to Liz Truss last week. That’s why I’m camping on the street, because after five and a half years that’s really clear.”
For the sake of Nazanin and her husband and daughter, more than any of us, I would be grateful if the Minister could provide at least some clarity about this issue today.
My Lords, what a beautiful, beautiful, moving contribution that was from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. It is perhaps the finest I have heard in my 20 years as Member of the House.
Having read the
What is obvious is that in recent months the view of the Commons has become clear and is well documented in Hansard. I cannot understand why the Commons authorities intervened in the way they did. No doubt, the Iranian embassy in London will be closely following events in Parliament. It will now, as we speak, be on live feed, listening to this debate. It will evaluate statements made by Ministers, including our Prime Minister, whose contribution to this debate has been less than helpful.
Let us be in no doubt that the louder the calls for a settlement, the more likely it is that the Iranians will hold out in the belief that a financial settlement is likely to come sooner rather than later. That is the Catch-22 position we are now in. Transparency will inevitably have its price. The louder Parliament shouts, the more resolute they will become. When caught in the headlamps of such a dilemma and in such contradictions, it is best to turn to the principle. To me, it is clear: we owe them money. The so-called niceties, norms, modalities and complexities of international diplomacy are obstacles, but they should be set aside. We have all been brought up to pay our debts, and so should the state. Arguments over the background to the debt are a hindrance, only exacerbating a position that is increasingly indefensible. We owe the money. It is their money. It is not our money. The response of the Government lacks all credibility. I say: pay up, and pay up now.
Perhaps I may say something more controversial. We should ignore our kith and kin in America who, at the moment, are suffering a worldwide-role identity crisis. Trump is a symptom of that. We need to begin a process of rapprochement with Iran and others. We need to rethink our approach to relationships with Islamic states and if, as we heard in the previous debate, we can talk to the Taliban, I am sure we can talk to the Iranians. As the world moves on from oil to renewables, the relationship between oil-dependent Islamic states and the advanced nations, particularly in the West, will change. It will be more problematic. Today’s differences of opinion could turn very ugly indeed, and therefore we should act with very great care.
Finally, the Minister today is bound by his brief and, despite his reputation for frankness, cannot say what he might believe, and I suspect he agrees far more with us than with the brief he has been given. The much respected mantra “We recognise the legal duty to repay the debt and will explore the legal options for doing so”, which we see repeated in all sorts of documents and speeches, is simply not good enough. I hope that the powers that stand behind the Minister are listening to this debate. They should think again and pay up. Parliament says pay up. We should pay up.
My Lords, the facts about the arrest of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in April 2016 and her subsequent imprisonment are well known to this House and have been expertly and movingly explained and expounded on by my noble friend Lord Collins and other participants in this debate, so suffice it to say her ordeal is continuing. Her husband, as he began his recent hunger strike outside the Foreign Office, said,
“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 faith in their approach.”
Who can blame him for that? Certainly not the group of parliamentarians, including me, from both Houses and all parties who visited him during his hunger strike to show support. It is astonishing that our superb, experienced Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service and, indeed, HMG, have seemed so useless and clumsily inept in this case. I am not sure whether I am more angry or ashamed. In fact, I am probably both about what has happened here.
It has been clear from the start that this and other similar actions from Iran are linked to settlement of the payment of the debt owed by Britain to Iran—a debt confirmed in international arbitration and now accepted as valid by Her Majesty’s Government. Yes, it is reprehensible of Iran to use human beings as hostages and, yes, there are sanctions about transferring money to Iran, not least from the United States. However, the fact is that, although the UK has a correct policy not to pay ransom for kidnapped hostages, this is not a ransom, as other participants have said; it is an acknowledged legal debt to be repaid. As for US sanctions, in May 2016, President Obama paid a similar debt owed by the United States. This was paid in cash and delivered by plane, and therefore did not violate US sanctions in paying the debt back to Iran.
The Government need to get their act together and return Nazanin home to her husband and child, and to the country of which she is a citizen, where she has chosen to live, and whose Government have been letting her down so very badly.
My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury for bringing forward this opportunity to debate this scandal. He has been dogged in his determination in relation to Nazanin’s case and I know that all noble Lords intend to follow his lead.
I also add to the enormous congratulations to the right reverend Prelate that we have heard already. I have not been around as long as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but that was certainly the most powerful maiden speech that I have heard or read in either House of Parliament in an adult life of paying close attention to such things.
I declare an interest as a member of 39 Essex Chambers, a status which I have the privilege of sharing with Edwin Glasgow QC, who, as noble Lords will appreciate, wrote a piece in the Times today. I associate myself with that “Thunderer” article and wish to repeat and expand on some of it. This is an occasion on which I will not apologise for an element of repetition because, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, we need keep repeating these arguments until the Government perform what is a fundamental duty of any Government.
It has been said, and let us say again, that this is not a transactional matter. We should pay our debts, which are clearly owing in law. These are debts that have been found owing by our own courts and international tribunals, and they are accepted by Her Majesty’s Government. However, it is not a transactional matter not to pay your debts and not to abide by the rule of law; that will inevitably toxify your relations with the country that feels wronged and make it far less possible to suggest that that country, whoever it is, also upholds international norms. The debt must be paid; every moment it is not, we continue to toxify relations when we should be offering a moral lead, as suggested by the right reverend Prelate, and obeying the rule of law.
That is all that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family have ever asked of their Government. It is a pretty modest request from not just a citizen but one who is supposed to have diplomatic protection. What is diplomatic protection from Her Majesty’s Government worth these days? That is a valid question for any British citizen to ask of the present Government.
We have heard that the Government have hidden behind EU sanctions despite Brexit, and even though they took the post-Brexit opportunity effectively to reinstate the nature of those sanctions. That is an excuse. My noble friend spoke of obfuscation and double-dealing in relation to words that the Government have used, such as “complicated” and “unhelpful”. Those of us on this and other sides of the House know what we believe to be unhelpful in relation to this poor woman’s case.
The United States has been mentioned, in particular by some of my noble friends, but the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, unequivocally confirmed on our much-loved BBC that this is a sovereign decision for the United Kingdom. As my noble friend said a few moments ago, the United States has discharged its own similar debt to Iran.
It is not a pleasant thing to have to say, but the Prime Minister also owes a personal debt of honour in this case. We all know about the gaffe that he made when he was the Foreign Secretary—a pretty tragic gaffe in relation to this poor woman’s case, but he made it. I suggest that that makes this a more personal debt of honour still. We know that he has promised that the debt should be paid. So a specific debt of honour is owed by this Government and this Prime Minister. There is also a wider duty to protect our nationals. I do not want to hear about dual nationality; we know where the Government stand on matters of that kind. This woman is a British national and has diplomatic protection, so the Government must pay their debt to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the Government of Iran. They must uphold the international rule of law.
My Lords, I too start by paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for her maiden speech. I appreciate her terrible loss. I was a student at Oxford with her brother, Bahram. I remember a Sunday lunch when we all gathered to wish him well before he went back to Iran after the revolution. We said that he must be careful, but he dismissed us. I can see him now. He said that it was his home and he would be fine. Soon after, we heard of his awful killing. I was astonished as the right reverend Prelate gave the most forgiving, humane speech, paying such tribute to her country of birth despite the pain that she has suffered. I also thank her for her support for Nazanin and her family.
How many times have we raised Nazanin’s case? How much more agony will this poor family, and those of the other British hostages in Iran, need to suffer? It tugs at me that Nazanin and her family have not only been put through hell; I also think of the long-term effect on them. I know that my own children could not be more important to me, and I know that the Minister feels the same about his. Nazanin will suffer because of the potential effect on Gabriella and all that both have lost, as she has grown from babyhood to going to primary school. There is also the fact that Gabriella may be an only child, taking from Nazanin and Richard the possibility that they might have wanted their family to grow.
I hope that we are not going backwards here. I note that, when Richard was bravely and desperately on hunger strike, few Tories came to visit him, with the notable exception of Jeremy Hunt. Of course it is the Iranians, or at least the Revolutionary Guard, who must be held to account here, but perhaps the Minister can take back to his colleagues that Nazanin’s case is cutting through to the public more than they might think. I was knocking up, as you do if you are a Lib Dem on election days, in the by-election in Amersham. A local builder said to me that he was about to vote for us because—this really surprised me—“that poor lady would not still be in prison in Iran” had the then Foreign Secretary not said what he did. This builder did not therefore rate him as Prime Minister.
Yet I pick up no real concern from that Prime Minister or the new Foreign Secretary—or the Middle East Minister, for that matter, unlike some of his predecessors. As others have noted, during Theresa May’s time, there were at least six visits to Iran by five different Ministers to try to resolve Nazanin’s case. Why has no Minister gone to Iran for this purpose under this Government? Despite Covid, Ministers have travelled, as the Minister recognises.
Why, therefore, are the Government failing to use the diplomatic protection granted to Nazanin? Do they recognise the dangers in undermining the credibility of such protections if we fail to follow through? Why do the Government refer to Nazanin and the other British hostages in Iran as “dual nationals” rather than “British citizens”, as other have mentioned? Is that to distance themselves? I am now a dual national of the United Kingdom and Ireland, which I sought, courtesy of my grandmother, post Brexit, so that I could still be an EU citizen. I am sure I am not the only dual citizen in your Lordships’ House. Am I, too, to be abandoned, if in difficulties somewhere around the world?
As we know, Nazanin has repeatedly been told by the Iranians that she is being held as collateral for the UK government debt to Iran, which the UK recognises and the courts have confirmed. I echo others’ questions on this: what exactly are the sanctions issues or legal problems preventing the Government settling this debt? Are we currying favour with the Americans? Have we delayed action at their request for geopolitical reasons?
Do the Government recognise Nazanin as a hostage under the terms of the Taking of Hostages Act 1982? Clearly, being held as a political hostage in this way is absolutely unacceptable, and the Iranian Government should be called out on that. But, in February 2021, as we have heard, the UK backed a Canada-led initiative against such states’ hostage-taking, so how will we now act on it? To echo the noble Lord, Lord Collins: will the Government consider Magnitsky sanctions against those who have already been identified as perpetrators of hostage-taking?
I look forward to the Minister’s response, but, even more than that, I look forward to the Government taking the urgent action that we know has the greatest potential to secure her immediate release, for her sake and for her family.
My Lords, I join all those who have congratulated the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on a tremendous maiden speech, which moved everyone in the Chamber. We all look forward to her many future contributions, and I congratulate her.
Nazanin has been a prisoner of the Iranian regime for over five long years. Depressingly, there seems to be no end in sight. So far, successive Foreign Secretaries have failed in their efforts to secure her release, with one of them—the present Prime Minister—making a delicate situation rather worse by wrongly describing Nazanin as a journalist and apparently confirming one of the Iranian regime’s trumped-up charges. That moment of British carelessness is of course no excuse for the Iranian regime’s treatment of Nazanin, but it has been used to justify that treatment in the eyes of supporters of the Iranian regime, and it was a costly error.
As many others have said in this debate, another error has been the continued delay in paying Iran our debt of £400 million for the undelivered tanks. I am under no illusions about the nature of the Iranian Government, who remain very hostile to the West in a number of ways. They are under severe sanction for, inter alia, their alleged actions in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but there is no question that we owe Iran the money, and we should urgently find a way to pay up, as others have done and as President Obama did in 2016, as others have said. We cannot keep hiding behind the need to observe sanctions, thereby conceding the moral high ground to Iran.
I am not naive; I can see why many would not like to provide a large amount of money to this Iranian regime. Nor do I assume that if we paid our debt, the Iranian regime would necessarily release Nazanin and the other UK nationals who are arbitrarily detained. The regime is always ready to invent some new pretext or other to extend the detentions, but while we do not pay our debt, we continue to find it particularly difficult to avoid being labelled by Iran and its allies as feckless. To pay up would not be responding to a ransom demand, as others have said; it would be discharging an obligation.
The UK Government have insisted that there is no link between Nazanin’s detention and the debt. It is certainly the case that if we were to discharge our debt and negotiate with Iran, there could be no guarantees about Nazanin and the other British hostages being released, but not paying the debt is a clear barrier, and other western nations have settled their debts with Tehran and secured the release of citizens. Linkages and trade-offs, by the way, will be central to the success or otherwise of the resumed talks in Austria at the moment between Iran and the western powers, including the UK, on nuclear non-proliferation issues. The Iranians are not strangers to these diplomatic processes, and every opportunity should be taken to negotiate a way forward for Nazanin and the others. So, I join just about everybody who has spoken today to ask the Minister: when will this debt be cleared? What diplomatic processes are under way to negotiate for Nazanin and others who want and deserve a long- overdue release?
My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for, as other noble Lords have said, a remarkable and moving maiden speech—a quite extraordinary speech. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, it was probably the best speech any of us has heard for a very long time. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for securing this important debate. He was completely right to say that it is not possible to imagine how badly Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has suffered at the hands of the Iranian dictatorship: kidnapped, imprisoned and denied contact with her family, having done nothing wrong whatever.
It is not possible, either, to imagine the impact this is having on her family. I too was at the Magnitsky awards to see Gabriella receive the Courage Under Fire award on behalf of her mother. I have met her husband on several occasions, in his recent hunger strike outside the Foreign Office and in the previous one outside the Iranian embassy. I pay tribute to him for everything he has done to keep the regime’s treatment of his wife in the public eye and demand that this appalling, awful situation is resolved. I think responsibility for this has to be laid squarely with the Iranian dictatorship, which is not a legitimate, democratic Government elected freely by the Iranian people; it is a brutal, despotic dictatorship that bans opponents, steals elections, executes opponents in Iran and targets them abroad, denies women basic freedoms, kills people for having sex outside marriage and hangs gay men from cranes. This is not a democracy run by reasonable people with whom you can negotiate; it is a brutal regime, as we have heard, that kidnaps citizens of other countries—not just our citizens but citizens from several nations.
It is clearly not correct, in that context, to argue that this is the fault of British Governments over the last 40 years who have not been able to resolve this issue about the defence contract. We should think about what this regime would do with £400 million. It would not be used to help ordinary citizens in Iran, to strengthen the economy, to provide jobs or to improve public services. The regime is not in the least bit interested in the conditions of ordinary Iranians; it does not, after all, allow them the opportunity to vote it out of office. Even with its economy on its knees and people in Iran suffering, it spends billions causing carnage in Iraq and Syria, bankrolling terrorists in Gaza and Lebanon, where it has created chaos and destroyed the economy in that country as well, creating nuclear weapons which threaten to destroy Israel and creating an arms race across the Middle East. That, I am afraid, is what the £400 million would be used for.
I would like to ask the Minister some specific questions. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, will the Government first acknowledge that Nazanin and the other British nationals arbitrarily detained in Iran are hostages in accordance with the Taking of Hostages Act 1982? Will they commit to finding international solutions to Iran’s systematic hostage taking at the upcoming democracy summit being hosted by the US this month?
Ministers have visited Iran, as we have heard, to try to solve this case in the past. Can the Minister assure the House that that will be happening in future? Will Ministers be visiting Iran to support her and press her case, especially as she has been given diplomatic protection?
What have the Government done with the evidence they received that Nazanin’s treatment amounted to torture, and why have they not raised the torture of Nazanin and other foreign nationals in Iran at the United Nations? Are the Government concerned that paying the regime this money could result in it kidnapping more citizens from other countries in future?
I agree with the noble Lord who said that there must be a plan. I am not asking for discreet pressure or cautious words; I want the Government to increase pressure on the regime to release Nazanin. For example, what assessment have the Government made of the case for much tougher sanctions on the regime, its Ministers and its officials? What assessment have they made for imposing Magnitsky sanctions on the people identified as being involved in the arrest and detention of British citizens? What assessment have they made of the case for the complete proscription of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard—the IRGC—which is responsible for much of the brutal rule of the poor citizens of Iran and the carnage this regime creates across the region more broadly?
Finally, given that other noble Lords have raised the separate issue of the JCPOA negotiations in Vienna, I conclude by urging the Government to adopt a robust approach in these negotiations so that everything possible can be done to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.
My Lords, when the history of this tragic and sad case comes to be written, great credit will be due to my noble friend Lord Collins for having instigated today’s debate which, if nothing else, is about keeping up the pressure which needs to be kept up after so many years. We should all be very grateful to my noble friend for doing that.
I turn to the right reverend Prelate’s maiden speech. It was a very moving personal story, and you could see the reaction of the House to it. It falls to me to congratulate her on her maiden speech, as it did earlier today to congratulate her colleague, who has now left his place, on his maiden speech. I made my maiden speech only seven weeks ago today and had the occasion on a subsequent day to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on his maiden speech, so I have now reached three maiden speeches. I do not know if there are any more Bishops due into the House —someone ought to let me know.
Returning to this case, I, like other noble Lords, walked over to see Richard Ratcliffe when he was on hunger strike outside the FCDO. I echo what was said by my noble friend. It was shameful to see a hunger strike outside our own Foreign Office. I had never met him before. He looked tired, wan, cold and hungry. I did not keep him long. I told him that I had been invited over by my noble friend Lord Dubs and his eyes lit up, I must say, when he heard his name. I did not want to detain him for very long. It was much more important that he talked to the “Today” programme, who were waiting to speak to him, and to “Newsnight” and Channel 4.
It was clear to me, in the very short conversation I had with him, that he does not understand what the Government’s position is on his case, and when I look back to the exchanges we had in this House on
When I walked across there, incidentally, I thought of medieval history, because we have a statue of a hostage outside our Chamber, outside Peers’ Entrance. Richard I spent a year as a hostage, if I remember rightly.
I hope I am not being unduly unfair to the British Government, but I am beginning to wonder whether I am lobbying the wrong Government. I would like to explore the relationship between the British and American Governments. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said that, from the American point of view, it is a sovereign decision of a sovereign Government whether to pay the money, but I think everybody in this House today agrees that the money must be paid. Interestingly, I read in an internal briefing—it was not remotely secret in any way; it was just a regular internal briefing—from within the State Department that, on
“The payment of the UK debt has nothing to do with the release of the dual prisoners. The UK government definitely has a 40-year debt to Iran, and it makes no difference whether a British official has acknowledged the debt or not.”
I must admit that I have never heard it said that the Iranians do not think there is a link. I would be interested to hear in the Minister’s reply what type of connection and contacts there have been between the Foreign Office and the Iran desk in the State Department.
Regarding the JCPOA talks which began in Vienna, which other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Austin, mentioned, on
“to have conversations with Iran to deal with regional issues and other issues.”
I would just like to explore whether those other issues might include anything related to the Nazanin case, because I think the House would like to know more about the relationship and the discussions between the British and American Governments. As has been pointed out already, former President Obama had no difficulty—I did not know it was flying cash over in a plane, or whatever it was—so there must be some mechanism by which this £400 million can be paid.
I will leave it there, but I think the Government owe the House, not to mention Richard Ratcliffe and his family, a better explanation and more effort than they have shown so far.
I thank my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury for initiating this debate and Tulip Siddiq MP for her tireless campaigning. I also add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on her most moving maiden speech.
This is not an issue between the people of Iran or the people of the UK. It is between two Governments. I do not believe there was ever a golden era of British diplomacy; it has always been about power, money and leverage. Having said that, when the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service were better staffed and we had more talented political leaders, I feel sure that this case would have been handled much better.
As it is, we are mired in a multi-level mud pile: a debt which an international court has said we owe, so we are breaking international law—no change there, then; a court case which no doubt has suited both sides to drag on for decades; the UK’s own legislation passed post Brexit, as my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti mentioned, which replaced the EU’s sanctions regime with its own, meaning that paying the acknowledged debt would contravene the UK’s own legislation; and, I suspect the main problem, relations with the USA, which could apply its own sanctions to UK entities and, more importantly, affect future trade agreements between the USA and the UK.
I believe the latter is dead in the water anyway until either Joe Biden or Boris Johnson goes. The Prime Minister’s active support for Mr Trump could hardly endear him to the current Administration. As has already been said, when asked whether the US would stand in the way of the UK meeting a payment to Iran, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it was
“a sovereign decision for the United Kingdom.”
For heaven’s sake, what else was he going to say—“We have informed our 52nd state that we will not be buying so much as a pencil from them if they do not do as they are told”? I doubt it very much. As I said, there are multiple layers of mud.
The Government might be surprised to know that I agree that payment of the debt should not be linked to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release; nor should we be seen to give in to blackmail, as she and others are clearly political hostages. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s current sentence is linked to her demonstrating outside the Iranian embassy in 2009. No doubt, this is a trumped-up charge but, before we start to feel superior, is not the legislation currently going through Parliament intended to curb the right to protest and demonstrate? Similarly, countries have the right to decide whether or not to recognise dual nationals. Remember Australia, where a few parliamentarians had to stand again for election because they were not born there. Iran has this right, no matter how inconvenient it might be.
We are left with the human story of an individual who is being used a political pawn. Her rights and freedoms have been denied. Her family has been subjected to untold mental suffering. When I chaired ACAS, I witnessed the most incredible staff coming up with solutions—so many were unlikely, but they worked. Sometimes it is about changing the agenda. Completed deals do not have to be good deals—they just have to be acceptable to both sides. If the UK and Iranian Governments would consent, I would willingly travel to Tehran at my own expense to collect Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and bring her home. I am sure others in this Chamber tonight would do the same. It would not be part of any deal. It would not be linked with anything. I would promise not to make any statements which would hinder future relations. I express my solidarity with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I suggest that the Government need to change their agenda.
My Lords, I think the mood of the House is to want to hear answers from the Minister to the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, so clearly asked in introducing this debate. We are indebted to him for bringing this matter to us and for the way in which he introduced it. I will briefly comment on the categories into which those questions fall.
Before I do so, I also wish to remark on the gripping maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. Forgiveness is hard, in many respects, when it affects our families. Her speech was humbling and came from a very humble person. If she does not mind me saying so, her surname, Francis-Dehqani, itself suggests a duality. I ask her to forgive me if I have pronounced it incorrectly. It represents how people can come together and live together. As she indicated, this is not an issue between the British and Iranian peoples. It is a human tragedy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, said. It clearly illustrates how Britain can be a shelter in the storm in times of trouble for individuals. It also means that our own culture and country are strengthened by them. We are grateful for the contribution of the right reverend Prelate.
My noble friend Lady Northover asked, rhetorically, how many times we have had to raise this case. This is the 21st time that she has raised it, and I give her credit, just as others, including the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, have raised it consistently in this place, and MPs including Tulip Siddiq, the local MP, have raised it on a cross-party basis. After a number of weeks of asking questions of the Minister and of the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, I fear that our patience is wearing thin on specific questions that have been raised today and in recent weeks.
For example, my noble friend Lady Northover, in her previous contribution in June this year, asked about the attendance of British diplomats at court hearings for Nazanin. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and others indicated, what is the value of providing diplomatic protection status to a British national for the first time since 1951 if there is no meaningful benefit from it being provided? If there is no meaningful benefit in this case, it undermines the whole concept of providing it to a British national, which is of deep concern.
Other noble Lords and I have been out and spoken to Richard Ratcliffe, and seen the sacrifices he has made and his dedication to his family. His questions, which are reasonable, are now receiving weaker answers. For example, the previous Foreign Secretary—and there have been five since the original detention of Nazanin—made a statement on torture. As has been indicated, the former Foreign Secretary said that the treatment of her was tantamount to torture, but the Government have then done nothing about it. I was told by Richard that British officials had previously raised this with Iranian officials, but then did nothing. This is not simply a concern to raise. The Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has obligations on those party to it. If we believe that a British national, joint or otherwise, is subject to torture in breach of the convention, we have a formal duty to ask that it is investigated.
I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, whether we have formally requested that Iran investigate allegations of torture, under the convention. The noble Lord gave a sincere response, saying
“I hear what the noble Lord says. On my return from your Lordships’ House, I will make sure that this issue is raised specifically in the briefing that is prepared.”—[
That briefing was prepared in advance of when the Foreign Secretary met Richard Ratcliffe. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House and me on the result of that discussion, because it is simply not good enough if, every time a British Foreign Secretary changes, the slate is wiped clean and a new Foreign Secretary starts with a new initiative. This is where some frustrations have been raised; the second area regards the allegations of being a hostage.
When we asked about the IMS and the £400 million, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, stated in the House that it was his view that providing millions of pounds to the Iranian Government would be seen as paying ransom money. He later clarified that in a letter that he had to write to us, stating that the Government believed that they were duty bound to provide those funds. But as the noble Lord, Lord Wood, asked clearly, what is the position of the Government and where are the blocks for releasing those funds? Is it, as has been mentioned, that the maximum-pressure approach under the Trump Administration, separate from the Obama Administration when it comes to the use of dollars in providing funds, is something that our Foreign Secretary is aligned with? Is it that we do not wish to have the issue of paying this money raised during the Vienna discussions in relation to the request from Iran to release all sanctions? If Iran has deferred the final formal requests for the process of payments to be made through non sanction-prohibited bodies, what is the Government’s understanding as to why that is the case? The position of the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, when he said
“We continue to explore options, as I said before, to resolve this case”—[Official Report, 15/11/21; col. 17.]
is simply not credible any more. We now need answers as to why that is not being provided.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wood, indicated, it seems as if there is no longer a strategy for that approach. We hear Governments say that they are doing all they can, but that is not communicated to Richard Ratcliffe or Parliament. Nor are international conventions activated or other opportunities taken when deciding whether this is defined as a hostage scenario under UK law. We continue to ask these questions and will do so repeatedly, patiently but persistently until we have answers—but fundamentally until Nazanin is returned home to her family.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and join in the appreciation of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in bringing this issue to the Chamber. As ever, I have listened carefully to all the comments and contributions.
However, it would be remiss of me not to join others in welcoming the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford to your Lordships’ House. As many noble Lords said, her contribution has illustrated that the House is so much richer for her presence. I am sure that we will see such talents very much on display in future debates. I was reminded that there are some experiences that put the whole issue into perspective, perhaps not just in the challenges and the incredibly moving story that the right reverend Prelate shared with us, for which I thank her. I am sure that I speak for every noble Lord in this House and those who will read Hansard.
I was thinking: the right reverend Prelate is a Christian born in a Muslim country and I am a Muslim born in a Christian country, yet our experiences are so different. On a lighter note, I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, at the start of this debate, thereby showing the combining of traditions, that my young son is in a nativity play this evening. I shall give my apologies to him later. Nevertheless, that brought great reflection on the incredible place that is our United Kingdom, though it is not without challenges. Therefore, having the right reverend Prelate’s contribution on this important issue, and indeed those of other noble Lords, not just causes us to listen but impacts on us to our core.
I mention on the record the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He said that we will keep going. I want him to keep going and it is right that he does, because it brings hope for the likes of Richard Ratcliffe and others. Most importantly, it brings hope for those British nationals in Iran that this matter will be brought to the British Parliament. I also join others in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, reminded us of the number of occasions that this issue has been raised. As the right reverend Prelate said in her moving speech, regarding compassion, I seek compassion as I fear I may not be able to satisfy noble Lords in every element of the answers that I give. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others who continually represent the interests of those who are in Iran, because it does bring hope. I welcome that.
Nazanin’s unfair detention—it is unfair—is cruel and intolerable. The ordeal that she has been subjected to by the Iranian authorities is completely unacceptable. I assure noble Lords that the Government have maintained a campaign of pressure on the Iranian Government throughout Nazanin’s detention, and we will not relent until she is released. I hope that that provides a degree—I emphasise that word—of hope to the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, because one should never give up hope. I certainly do not, and I know that other noble Lords share that sentiment, because debates such as this perhaps ultimately bring a faint glimmer of hope that this issue matters. I assure noble Lords that it matters to Her Majesty’s Government.
We are wholly committed to maintaining pressure on the Iranian authorities, until all UK nationals detained in Iran are reunited with their families, including not just Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe but Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and others, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned. In the relationship that we have with the families of others, we respect the confidentiality of the conversations that we undertake.
I turn to Nazanin’s case. Since her arrest at Imam Khomeini Airport in 2016 and the family’s request for consular assistance, UK Ministers and officials have always carefully considered, pursued and, of course, acted on this. We have offered the best opportunities to ensure that we continue to secure her immediate release. As several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, mentioned, in 2019 the then-Foreign Secretary afforded diplomatic protection to Nazanin—a decision that formally raised her case to a state-to-state issue and certainly sent a clear diplomatic signal to the Iranian Government that their behaviour was, frankly, totally wrong.
Nazanin’s release from prison on furlough to live with her parents in Tehran, which I know all noble Lords welcomed last year, provided a degree—I emphasise that word again—of respite. Tragically and regrettably, though, the Iranian system has continued to put her through a very gruelling mental ordeal. In March this year, after Nazanin’s sentence was completed and her ankle tag was removed, Iran brought further baseless charges against her.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Campbell-Savours, and others rightly raised the UK’s position and our action to date. I assure noble Lords that we continue to raise our concerns about Nazanin’s detention and mistreatment throughout the process. When the second set of charges was formalised at a court hearing in April, we summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires and demanded Nazanin’s immediate release. When her appeal was rejected in October, we objected in the strongest terms and demanded her release at the highest levels of the Iranian system.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and others that it has certainly been the UK Government’s consistent approach to continue to engage with Iran, notwithstanding our close ally and friend the United States. Indeed, noble Lords mentioned the JCPOA and other discussions that we have. We work very closely with the United States and other partners, but equally—I know that this view is shared by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and others—we continue to maintain that the JCPOA, notwithstanding its faults and challenges, still represents the best way of ensuring that Iran does not move towards developing nuclear weapons, about which other noble Lords have aired concerns, which I share.
I assure noble Lords that I can speak frankly about our ambassador, Simon Shercliff, who is doing a sterling job. I know him very well. He lobbies senior Iranians at every opportunity, as do our Ministers. In her discussions with the Iranian Foreign Minister in November, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, once again demanded the full and permanent release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as did my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Middle East, James Cleverly, during his conversation with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, which also took place this month.
In all these discussions, we have been crystal clear that Nazanin should be allowed to return home immediately and that under no circumstances should she be returned to prison, which would represent a watershed moment in UK-Iranian bilateral relations. Despite this Government’s unwavering desire to see the full and permanent release of all those who are being detained in Iran, it remains within Iran’s gift to do the right thing and release them. Iran is responsible for putting them through an intolerable ordeal—and their families, as we have heard through the experience of Richard and Gabriella. It remains Tehran’s moral obligation to release them immediately so that they can be returned to their families. We continue to do what we can to support Nazanin’s family, since they requested assistance, and we have a consular team available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly with both Richard Ratcliffe and Nazanin on a number of occasions and, while she has been living with her parents in Tehran, successive Foreign Secretaries have done so. Our ambassador in Tehran is in regular contact with her and has been able to visit her at her parents’ home. We will continue to offer that support until Nazanin has returned home.
The welfare of all those who are still detained in Iranian prisons remains a top priority. Both Anoosheh and Morad are exposed to heightened risk, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and it has been further heightened with the risk of Covid. We remain deeply concerned, as he said, about their health and urge Iran for their immediate release. Our ambassador in Tehran regularly insists on the humanitarian treatment of those detained by Iran and lobbies on specific health concerns we have and other issues raised by the families.
We have also raised our concerns in countless formal diplomatic correspondence and requested consular access, medical treatment, furloughs and details of judicial process but, as the noble Lord, Lord Austin, reminded us, this is unacceptable. It is Iran’s responsibility, and we continue to remind Iran of its responsibility as an international player on the global stage. I assure noble Lords that the Foreign Secretary has taken every opportunity to discuss this with relevant international partners—the noble Lords, Lord Wood and Lord Dubs, among others, raised this issue—and to collaborate on ways to bring an end to Iran’s unacceptable practice of detaining foreign nationals and dual nationals. Indeed, that is why we signed up to the Canadian initiative on arbitrary detention.
This Government and I—I cannot overstate this—have the utmost admiration for Richard Ratcliffe’s commitment to securing Nazanin’s release and support his family. I add my welcome to the noble Viscount. In what was a challenging and emotional debate, I was struck that perhaps there is something to his early experiences in your Lordships’ House and his spiritual introduction through the maiden speeches that he has heard. I met Richard during his recent hunger strike, as did my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, the Minister of State, Mr Cleverly, and senior officials. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked who met Richard. It was difficult. Richard was sitting outside my place of work. I cannot speak for other Conservatives, but this Tory certainly went and met Richard. I have met Richard before. I met him in New York, and I certainly gave him both my personal assurance that I will do whatever I can. I appreciate noble Lords recognising that the Government have to work within parameters and discreet discussions take place. Nevertheless, I again assure all noble Lords that we offer Richard direct support—as have I and my colleagues—and stand firmly with his campaign and recognise the incredible effort and absolute devotion that he is showing to secure the release of Nazanin. We very much stand with him.
I turn to the issue of the IMS debt raised by the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Wood, Lord Monks and Lord Purvis—the list goes on. Checking back, I think that every noble Lord—including the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy and Lady Chakrabarti—raised it. I can clarify one thing. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that yes, to be clear, the UK accepts that this is a legal debt and it has to be paid. That has been very clear in our communications. We owe it to Iran and want to see it resolved.
Next comes the question of when. Various discussions are currently under way in this respect and noble Lords will appreciate that I am limited in what I can say at this juncture. However, I can assure noble Lords that discussions and debates that take place in your Lordships’ House are noted; if I am not wrong, this is the third occasion in the last month on which we have had a debate or Question on this important issue and that underlines the commitment to it shown by your Lordships’ House. We recognise that this issue needs to be resolved at the earliest opportunity.
There is little more I can add on the IMS debt. The issue of diplomatic protection was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. There was a decision that formally raised Nazanin’s case to a state issue and that sent a clear diplomatic signal to the Iranian Government that their behaviour was totally wrong.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, raised the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others during their detentions. As I have said already, it is certainly our view that Iran continues these cruel and intolerable ordeals. I assure the noble Lord that we continue to press on these issues in direct and bilateral discussions with the Iranians. Nazanin must be allowed to return permanently to her family in the UK and we will continue to press in this respect. The noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Austin, asked about this issue as well.
I believe I have answered on the issue of diplomatic leverage that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy. I was pleased, in listening to her speech very carefully, to note the part of her comments in which she recognised and shared the same belief as the Government that we will never accept any British national being used for diplomatic leverage.
The noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, asked about human rights. The UK continues to take steps to address Iran’s human rights record. Iranian ambassadors are regularly summoned, and we continue to raise issues at the Human Rights Council and the UN. I have already talked about the arbitrary detention initiative of our Canadian partners. We are working with G7 partners to enhance mechanisms to uphold international law, tackle human rights abuses and stand up for our shared values.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, also spoke about the levers available to Her Majesty’s Government. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is correct that I will not speculate on sanctions or future sanctions policy. However, I strongly believe that our support of the global human rights sanctions regime—a number of noble Lords alluded to their attendance at the Magnitsky awards—is a real recognition of the Government’s belief that human rights matter and that those who commit egregious abuses of human rights should be held to account.
Noble Lords consistently raised a number of issues, most notably those of the IMS debt and the continued detention of Nazanin and others. In concluding my remarks, I assure noble Lords that I recognise the strong sentiment here and will again emphasise this to colleagues in the FCDO. I have been at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was—now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—for a while now and can assure the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that there is nothing I have said that we are seeking to hold back.
Negotiations are of course under way on the IMS debt. Like all who expressed their sentiments during this debate, we wish to resolve this at the earliest opportunity. I recognise and welcome that this may not be the last occasion on which I will appear in your Lordships’ House to discuss this issue—I wish it was. Indeed, I pray that it will be, but I fear it will not. It is important that we continue to lobby, represent, collaborate and raise the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others in Iran, because this provides hope.
I will end, if I may, with the words of the right reverend Prelate, and I welcome her again to the House. She talked of compassion; her story demonstrably showed that compassion and humility are the best of us. Those are enduring qualities which we all seek and today we certainly heard those in action. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, once again for raising, and continuing to raise, this important matter.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions this afternoon. This has been an excellent and incredibly moving debate. I add my appreciation for the excellent maiden speech by the right reverend Prelate.
I do not dispute for one moment the effort that the Minister and other government Ministers have put into the campaign of pressure that he referred to but, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, we have had five Foreign Secretaries, each pursuing a new initiative, including diplomatic status. The fundamental question which, sadly, the Minister failed to answer is: why has this country failed when others have succeeded? I hope that when he goes back to the department, that will be uppermost in his mind.
Of course, one other point in relation to the five Foreign Secretaries is that there has been a continuity Minister, who is, of course, the noble Lord himself. He has successfully been a Minister of State in the Foreign Office under all those Foreign Secretaries, so I hope he can provide that continuity message to his superiors about the need not only to continue with the campaign of pressure but to understand better what is needed to resolve this issue—the plan of action that is so desperately needed.
The Minister said that it is in Iran’s gift to release the British nationals, including Nazanin, and he is absolutely right. He said that it is in Iran’s gift to do the right thing and that it is their moral obligation. Here, I come back to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. In her maiden speech, she said that it is about upholding international law, setting an example of integrity and doing the right thing. I hope the Minister will take that message back clearly in terms of the debt that is recognised as owed by this country to Iran.
This has been an excellent debate. I am not going delay the House any more. I just hope those messages get through.